Ukraine Verstehen: Why is a Putin-friendly party about to become the second political force in war-torn Ukraine?

The foreseen success of Opposition Platform – For Life! and other Russia-friendly parties comes as a shock to many in war-torn Ukraine. It is yet very explainable with a diversity of factors.

English version of an analysis published on the website of the think-tank Ukraine Verstehen in German, on 20/07/2019

They stand divided yet they have not been so strong in a long time. Several of the parties that run in Ukraine’s 21st July snap election are connected to the late authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych and to so-called pro-Russian ideas. The Opposition Platform – For Life! is set to become the second party in the next Verkhovna Rada with up to 15% of the votes. In addition to the atrophied Opposition Blok, to candidates who run independently in majoritarian constituencies and to the bizarre phenomenon of the party of provocative blogger Anatoliy Shariy, Russia-friendly forces wholly irrigate the Ukrainian political fields.

It comes as quite a contrast to the official discourse of the post-Maïdan and Poroshenko era. Although the former president did entertain some shady alliances with controversial personalities, his rhetoric was focused on cutting Ukraine off from Russia, breaking all trade and economic relations in order to move westwards and overall to repel Russia as the country-aggressor responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. 13,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict.

It is even more striking that a significant share of the voters is ready to support Russia-friendly politicians when one considers their divisions. In the background of a common seemingly post-Soviet, Russian-speaking and Russia-oriented political identity stand powerful oligarchic interests that compete between one another to entertain economic monopolies and corruption schemes. The split between Opposition Blok and Opposition Platform (which later merged with Vadim Rabinovych’s For Life!, i.e.) was due primarily to personal squabbles between the “gas people”, namely Viktor Medvechuk, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Yuriy Boyko and the “industrial people”, that is to say Rinat Akhmetov, Oleksandr Vilkul and Vadim Novinski. These disputes highlight the fact that there is nothing much ideological about so-called pro-Russian politicians. Were they to have run together in the march presidential election, Yuriy Boyko might have made it to the second round.

It has to be pointed out that this success in the opinion polls comes at a time when Volodymyr Zelenskyy offers an alternative to voters. The former comedian is connected to the Soviet tradition of humour. He does wish to end the fighting in Donbass and to lower gas tariffs for households. A native Russian-speaker, he has switched to Ukrainian since his election. Nonetheless the head of his “Servant of the People” party, Dmytro Razumkov, makes a point of speaking Russian “to address all people from the occupied territories”. Support for Russia-friendly parties becomes even more intriguing in this context.

American political analyst Brian Mefford writes in The Atlantic Council that the 15% percentage of support for Opposition Platform – For Life! is “almost identical to the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine”. Such data is worth bearing in mind although I don’t make it the focus point of my analysis as it entertains the idea of “fifth column” that would play against Ukraine’s interests. The same goes with reports focusing on Russian influence efforts and on the media empire Viktor Medvechuk has built himself (TV channels 112, NewsOne, ZIK and potentially Inter, Internet resources strana.ua and korrespondent.net), that assumes all voters of Russia-friendly parties are a mass of impoverished and brainwashed people. Although it is impossible to publicly assess in the current context, some part of these voters may well believe the Revolution of Dignity was a forceful coup, that Crimea is Russian and that the war in Donbass is a civil war. Yet the assumptions that all Russia-friendly voters have fallen prey to Russian propaganda and disinformation do miss out on some key points.

In a podcast aired on the Ukrainska Pravda website, journalist Roman Kravets first points out to a historical phenomenon. “About 20% of Ukraine’s population genuinely misses the USSR and the idea of a union with Russia”. Sociological researches clearly show that some categories of people aged more than 50 years-old, mostly women, from the south-east regions, do have an emotional attachment to Russian literature, cinema, products, etc. Western countries are mentally further away. The feeling is enhanced by the geographic distance. In an interview conducted in April 2014, controversial Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes did emphasise that the Russian border is only 30 kilometres away from his office, whereas a trip to Poland required an expensive one-day trip on poor roads. The project launched by then Prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk to build a wall along the border did not echo well in the city and in eastern regions. Anyone calling for an easing of the relation with Russia would find some friendly ears.

Whether such categories of populations did agree or not with the motives of the Revolution of Dignity, the fact is that the post-Maïdan period has been challenging for many. The financial crisis, the devaluation of the hryvnia, the rise of energy tariffs or even the liberal-minded healthcare reform have made many Ukrainians nostalgic of the Yanukovych era. An appeased relationship with Russia is seen as a way to decrease tariffs and to lift the financial pressure from the IMF and Western lenders. It also appears to many voters as the best way to achieve peace in the East, as the key to the Donbass war evidently lies in the Kremlin. The personal relationship that Viktor Medvechuk enjoys with the godfather of his daughter Vladimir Putin makes him “some kind of a super hero”, journalist Roman Kravets claim. Yuriy Boyko has met twice with Russian Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in the past three months.

Their ability to negotiate directly with the Kremlin is much better appreciated by some categories of voters than former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s or rockstar Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. The latter recently denounced these high-levels meetings as “separate negotiations and electoral tricks at the expense of Ukraine’s national security”. He intends to support a bill to sue Medvechuk and Boyko. Yet Vakarchuk does not offer an alternative for peace talks. His party Holos does not even endorse any candidate in many of the south-east constituencies. It is also because Holos and other Western-minded parties have neglected entire regions of Ukraine that voters are set to support Russia-friendly parties.

Last but not least, it is essential to consider the weight of paternalism and local allegiances in the choice of voters. Oligarchs and regional barons have reputedly a firm hand on district authorities and local businesses. To vote for them appears to many voters as a simple extension of the local realities. Former infrastructure minister and controversial politician Boris Kolesnikov was caught on a 14th July video bragging about the new elevators he bought for some buildings in the city of Kostyantinivka, in Donetsk oblast. The crowd around him cheered thankfully and promised to vote for him. I recall some conversations I had in Donbass back in 2012-13. Local residents complained about the abuses of the Yanukovych regime yet they all stressed they would not want anyone else to be president. “Yanukovych is a crook. But he is our crook”, I heard several times.

Thus the level of support for Russia-friendly parties is explained with several factors. I do believe that this historical support now faces a major challenge with the Zelenskyy presidency. Were he to decrease energy tariffs, to improve the economic situation, to achieve some results in the peace negotiations and to soften what some feel as an aggressive language policy, these traditional Russia-friendly parties would have to adjust their discourse and their positioning. Notwithstanding that these potential developments in Ukraine are also dependent on evolutions within the Kremlin itself.

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