December 23, 2020
Kremlin-friendly political forces are making headway in Ukraine, and their leader says the time is ripe for further gains.
The advance may surprise those who watched protesters help realign the country — a frequent battleground between Russia and the West since communism collapsed — toward Europe just six years ago. The revolution prompted President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea from his neighbor and foment the war on the two former allies’ border that rumbles on today.
But with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy increasingly bogged down in a scrap against the murky political system he was elected to banish, there’s a window to tap into growing disillusionment. The popularity of the Opposition Platform – For Life party, which supports stronger ties with Russia, is the highest it’s been since protesters toppled Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 as it consolidates backing among pro-Russian voters.
“There’s no trust in Zelenskiy or his party,” said Viktor Medvedchuk, the chairman of Opposition Platform – For Life. Putin, who’s godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter, has backed him as his point man in Ukraine for years.
“I say openly that we should walk the same road with Russia, that we need to do everything to restore relations,” the 66-year-old tycoon said in an interview. “People believe that more and more.”
Medvedchuk, who’s been sanctioned by the U.S. for helping undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, zeroed in on the Donbas conflict that’s killed more than 13,000 people. Zelenskiy has failed to deliver on promises of peace that helped the then-political novice to a landslide election victory in 2019, he said.
Opposition Platform – For Life backs constitutional changes granting the breakaway region more autonomy that could counter Ukraine’s goals to integrate with the European Union and NATO — a move that would probably be career suicide for Zelenskiy.
Despite rising poll numbers and the president’s slump from popularity that once exceeded Putin’s in Russia, Medvedchuk’s party only controls about 10% of parliament’s seats and has little chance of ever being included in a national government. That aspiration was made harder by the loss of Crimea, where residents were largely Russia-leaning.
“There’s potential for further increases in support but it’s limited to 25% of voters — those with nostalgia for the Soviet Union and those who’d like to live in Russia,” said Andriy Bychenko, head of the sociology department at the Razumkov Center in Kyiv.
The party can still be useful for the Kremlin. Indeed, it’s teamed up with oligarchs in parliament to oppose reformist legislation needed to maintain a $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
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Medvedchuk, meanwhile, enjoys frequent air time on television stations officially owned by his friends and associates. He’s often broadcast speaking to Putin, who he’s met three time this year. Capitalizing on the pandemic, he was shown getting Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, which Ukraine doesn’t plan to purchase, while holidaying in Crimea in August — before trials established the shot’s safety and effectiveness.
Russian influence via such channels has raised red flags in Ukraine. But Zelenskiy, a former TV comic whose shows were aired on a controversial billionaire’s TV station, has yet to follow through on threats of a crackdown on media ownership.
For now, Medvedchuk is basking in his party’s growing popularity while acknowledging its limited scope.
“There are grounds for early elections, which would better reflect people’s interest,” he said, conceding that triggering a snap vote would be very difficult.
— With assistance by Irina Reznik, and Stepan Kravchenko