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Foreign interference in Ukrainian politics during the 2019 elections: The case of the Odesa Region

Over the past five years, the influence of the Kremlin in Odesa has shifted from sponsoring open calls for separatism to more subtle forms of interference.

December 10, 2019 - Dmytro Panchuk Harry Nedelcu Yevhen Popov - Articles and Commentary

Odesa harbour. Photo: Sekator85 (cc) wikimedia.org

This is the first in a series of three publications that will look at foreign interference in three select oblasts (regions) of Ukraine – Odesa, Kharkiv, and Zakarpattia. It examines potential Russian influence in the Odesa region during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Over the past five years, the influence of the Kremlin in Odesa has shifted from sponsoring open calls for separatism to more subtle forms of interference. This has included high-level political support for pro-Russian politicians through the Russian Orthodox Church, public endorsements, and promises for generous gas deals. It has also included disinformation through TV and online media, as well as “soft” separatist projects, such as the Porto Franco initiative.

Politics in Odesa region

Much like Sevastopol with its strategic location and its imperial and Soviet past, Odesa has long been on Moscow’s radar. In 2014 and 2015, Russian interference was so active that the region witnessed attempts by pro-Russian separatists to create a “Bessarabian People’s Republic” in a remote region of southern Odesa. Albeit unsuccessful this was intended to be similar to the existing unrecognised “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. Four years later, a number of influential pro-Russian candidates lost their seats in majoritarian constituencies to newcomers from Servant of the People in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Servant of the People received a staggering 47 per cent of votes in the region. Meanwhile, among the pro-Russian parties, only the Opposition Platform “Za Zhyttya (Pro Life)” entered the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, securing about 23 per cent of popular support in the Odesa region. The more radically pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, associated with oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and the political party of blogger Anatoliy Shariy, scored below 5 per cent each at the regional and national level, and failed to enter the Rada.

However, in spite of the resounding success of Servant of the People, pro-Russian attitudes among Odesa’s population remain high. The combined result of pro-Russian parties in the Odesa region in 2019 grew by at least 5 per cent compared with the 2014 parliamentary election. This increase may have resulted from a higher voter turnout (by 7.5 per cent) compared to the 2014 election. It may have also derived from several unofficial visits that Za Zhyttya officials paid to Moscow earlier in the year, including the party leader Yuriy Boyko and Putin’s close friend Victor Medvedchuk. During one of their trips, only a week before the presidential election, these politicians claimed to have secured a 25 per cent discount on the price for gas from Moscow. The Za Zhyttya leaders widely publicised this “achievement” during their campaign meetings with voters in the Odesa region.

They also deny Russia’s aggression in the Donbas, suggesting it is rather Ukraine’s internal conflict, and speak about peace with Russia at any cost. Following their visit, the Security Service of Ukraine opened a criminal investigation suspecting the Kremlin’s hand in interfering in Ukraine’s elections.

Role of pro-Russian media

The considerably higher electoral results of Za Zhyttya (around 40 per cent) in constituencies located in the southern Odesa region may also have been a result of the local population’s heavy reliance on foreign media in the absence of Ukrainian television in the area. Many of the area’s residents are tuned in to Russian and Transnistrian media channels, which often reiterate Russian narratives and common lines of Russian disinformation on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, when it comes to disinformation on online media, Russian-based websites and influencers have been focused a lot more on the Odesa region compared to the rest of the political conversation in Ukraine. During the week before parliamentary elections in 2019, Russian-based websites and bloggers accounted for 22 per cent of the media coverage of the political situation in Odesa. This was 29 per cent higher than the percentage of Russian-based websites and bloggers contributing to the global political debate on Ukraine ahead of the early parliamentary election.

Bot activity can also give some insights into the degree of foreign interference. Bot activity on Twitter was higher for conversations surrounding Odesa than the rest of the Twitter political conversation on Ukraine as a whole. In the week just before the parliamentary elections, the overall bot activity covering Odesa on Twitter was 26.6 per cent of the total Twitter conversation on Odesa. This was 16 per cent higher than for Ukraine as a whole during that same period. Russian-based sources covering Odesa were even more likely to be bots. They had a staggering 31.3 per cent automation. In other words, almost one-third of Russian-based Twitter accounts talking about Odesa were bots. This compares to just 12.5 per cent of Russian-based sources discussing Ukraine as a whole.

Electoral interference by Russian Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is another conduit of Russian influence in Ukraine, mainly through its links with the Russian Orthodox church and the Kremlin. In 2014, the UOC-MP opposed the Revolution of Dignity and has silently condoned the illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing Russian aggression in the eastern part of the country. The Odesa branch of the UOC-MP is led by bishop Agafangel, who is also an informal leader of the pro-Russian wing of the church and a chief proponent of the “Russian world” ideology (Russkiy Mir) that advocates for a Russian cultural and geopolitical affinity beyond Russia’s borders. For his work, he received several state awards from President Putin and is close to Opposition Bloc leaders Vadym Novynskyi and Serhiy Kivalov. Ahead of the presidential election in March, bishop Agafangel held a religious procession, during which he endorsed leader of the Opposition Bloc Yevhen Muraev for the presidential race. Agafangel also accused the Ukrainian authorities of “repressions against Odesa’s residents,” regurgitating the Kremlin’s prevalent false narrative of Kyiv oppressing the regions.

Pro-Russian local politicians

In addition to UOC-MP church leaders, some local pro-Russian politicians in the Odesa region have also served as either conscious agents or “useful idiots” in spreading Russian influence in the region. Incumbent Odesa mayor and long-serving member of the city’s political elite, Hennadiy Trukhanov, has been in the spotlight in multiple scandals involving corruption, his Russian citizenship, and his links with Russian business and mafia. Another Odesa strongman, Rector of the Odesa Law Academy, Serhiy Kivalov, has publicly promoted the idea of making Russian the second official language of Ukraine. In 2013, in recognition for his efforts, Kivalov even received a state award from President Putin. Trukhanov and Kivalov are also infamous for actively opposing the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, backing the UOC-MP in Odesa, and pursuing potentially separatist regional initiatives such as the idea of Odesa turning into a “Porto Franco”.

Trukhanov and Kivalov likewise control some of the city’s popular TV channels and websites, which often acted as a mouth-piece for themselves and their political allies during this year’s elections. Some content broadcasted by this media resonated with the widespread Kremlin narrative that Ukraine is “a failed state.” Trukhanov and Kivalov’s media also speculated over the tragic events in Odesa on the 2nd of May 2014 when 48 people died, and criticised Ukraine’s de-communisation law while reminiscing about its post-Soviet heritage.

Separatism in sheep’s clothing

After the failed attempt by the Kremlin to create a “Bessarabian People’s Republic” in Odesa in 2014 and 2015, open calls for separatism have given way to softer calls for regional federalisation. This year, Kivalov and some pro-Russian members of the Ukrainian parliament, including Vadym Novynskyi and Vadym Rabinovich, have revived discussions about creating a free economic zone in Odesa, or a “Porto Franco,” which they present as a means to attract more investment in the region.

Nevertheless, coming from pro-Russian politicians condoning Russia’s aggression, the “Porto Franco” initiative carries the risk of distancing the Odesa region from the rest of Ukraine. Furthermore, leaked emails, attributed to Putin’s political adviser Vladislav Surkov and his aides, hinted at Russia’s keen interest in the “Porto Franco” idea since 2014. The leaks offer evidence that the Kremlin funded agitation activities for Porto Franco, some of which occurred in Odesa this year. Similar ideas about free economic zones with secessionist flavours also featured in the “Surkov leaks” concerning Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipro. Such proposals currently have slim chances of gaining broader public support in Ukraine as a whole, but may very well introduce new fault lines of destabilisation within parts of the country.

What next?

Despite the defeat of many pro-Russian candidates in Odesa during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary election, the region continues to present vulnerabilities to the Kremlin’s influence. This is evidenced by relatively high popular support of pro-Russian parties and candidates with political ties to Russia and the disinformation of Russian traditional media and social media in Odesa region. It is also clear from the political activities of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the pro-Russia agenda of local Odesa politicians, including their backing for neo-separatist projects like Porto Franco.

Going forward, it will be important to monitor the political developments and media space in the region ahead of local elections, which are planned for the second half of 2020. While Russia may not be in a position to foment outright separatism in Odesa in the same way it tried five years ago, the Kremlin is still in the business of spreading the narrative that Ukraine is a “failed state” characterised by political instability, Western manipulation, and neo-Nazi influence. Ukraine is far from it, but the Kremlin will certainly make sure – in Odesa and elsewhere – that many will question whether that is true or not.

Harry Nedelcu, PhD is a senior advisor to Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Secretary General of NATO 2009-2014) and his foundation, the Alliance of Democracies. He works on issues around elections. He has investigated the way recent elections are affected by foreign interference and has helped uncover evidence-based accounts of foreign meddling in various states.

Dmytro Panchuk, PhD is Project Coordinator at the Alliance of Democracies Foundation dealing with the analysis and prevention of online foreign interference in Ukraine’s 2019 elections.

Yevhen Popov, PhD is a political analyst and team leader in the iVote project and lecturer at Odesa National University. He has worked as Head of the International Renaissance Foundation regional office in Southern Ukraine since 2014. During 2010-2014 he was Head of the regional think tank Institute for Political Information.

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