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Foreign interference in Ukraine’s politics during the 2019 elections: The case of the Kharkiv region

Russian interference during the Ukrainian elections in 2019 did not only manifest itself through political support for pro-Russian parties and candidates from Kharkiv. Disinformation, acts of sabotage and bomb threats were also part of the strategy in the region.

February 12, 2020 - 'Harry Nedelcu Dmytro Panchuk Yuliya Bidenko - Articles and Commentary

Southern railway station in Kharkiv. Photo: Vladimir Khalev (cc) wikimedia.org

This is the second in a series of three publications that look at foreign election interference in three select regions (oblasts) of Ukraine – Odesa, Kharkiv, and Zakarpattia. We examine Russian influence in the Kharkiv oblast (region) during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. The Kremlin’s influence did not help pro-Russian political forces fare better than Servant of the People. However, Russian interference during the parliamentary elections did manifest itself through political support for pro-Russian parties and candidates from Kharkiv. Hybrid warfare, including acts of sabotage and bomb threats during the election campaign, as well as the involvement of pro-Russian organisations and the Russian Orthodox Church all contributed to the interference. It also included a higher proportion of disinformation targeting Kharkiv in Russian traditional and online media compared to Ukraine as a whole.

Background: Political attitudes in Kharkiv region

The region of Kharkiv is the third most populous in Ukraine, and its capital, the city of Kharkiv, is the second largest city in the country. It shares a border with Russia to the north and with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the east, as well as significant economic, linguistic and cultural links with Russia. In 2014, the Kremlin sponsored the creation of a “people’s republic” in Kharkiv, much like in Donetsk and Luhansk. Nevertheless, the central government reacted swiftly in Kharkiv and the region narrowly avoided the fate of “DNR” and “LNR.”

Perhaps even more so than in Odesa, pro-Russian politicians from Kharkiv (including Za Zhyttya party co-Chair Vadim Rabinovich) use much of the Kremlin’s own rhetoric on Ukraine by advocating for peace with Russia, introducing Russian as the second state language, and unconditionally restarting economic links with Russia.

They try to appeal to a shared sense of history and “brotherly” ties between the two nations.

During the 2019 parliamentary election, however, almost all pro-Russian candidates from the region of Kharkiv lost in the majoritarian race to newcomers from Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party. The latter gained a whopping 42.7 per cent. The runner-up, pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – For Life (Za Zhyttya),” led by pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Medvedchuk, received 26.6 per cent.

The combined result, nonetheless, of all pro-Russian political parties (including Za Zhyttya, Opposition Bloc, and Party of Shariy) was still quite high at nearly 40 per cent. Likewise, in the first round of the presidential election, the co-Chair of Za Zhyttya, Yurii Boyko, received 26.6 per cent of popular support, only 10 per cent short of Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Political support from Moscow

During the spring and summer of 2019, Za Zhyttya leaders Medvedchuk and Boyko met with Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Alexey Miller (CEO of Gazprom). They then promised voters that they had secured a large price discount on Russian gas for Ukraine in 2020. Russian media, which is widely watched in the region of Kharkiv, went out of its way to present Za Zhyttya as the only legitimate pro-Russian party in Ukraine. At the same time, the media undermined Ukraine’s other parties and belittled other like-minded pro-Russian political projects. The Kremlin’s plan was to avoid a fragmentation of pro-Russian political forces in the new Rada.

This plan fell flat in Kharkiv, just like in Odesa. Other parties with a pro-Russian agenda in the Kharkiv region ended up taking some electoral points away from Za Zhyttya without making it into the Rada themselvesThe only exception was one candidate from Opposition Bloc who won in a majoritarian seat: Dmytro Shentsev. Every other majoritarian seat was taken by Servant of the People.

Local politics and ties to Russia

In the general elections, Kharkiv, like the rest of Ukraine, experienced an about-turn, but local politicians in the region (much like in Odesa) mostly maintained their positions of power. They still control the local and regional (oblast) councils while openly advocating for peace with Russia, sabotaging de-communisation laws, and glorifying the communist history of Ukraine.

Kharkiv’s long-serving mayor, Hennadii Kernes, has been a notorious supporter of the anti-Maidan movements in 2013 and 2014. Kernes has publicly opposed decisions to demolish Soviet-era statues and used his office to revert Kyiv’s decision on changing Soviet-era street names.

In addition, the Ukrainian media has reported on the economic dimension of Russia’s influence through business links between Russian oligarchs and political elites in the Kharkiv region that are close to Kernes, including Oleg Deripaska, Pavel Fuks, and Aleksandr Shishkin.

Together with Odesa Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov and Uzhhorod Mayor Bohdan Andriiv, Kernes took charge of the pro-Russian party “Doveryay Delam” (Trust in Deeds) in early June 2019. During a party congress that same month, Kernes emphasized the need to “stop the blame game” and enter direct negotiations with Russia. Ironically, in his follow-up comment on a popular Russian TV program “60 Minutes,” he blamed the previous Ukrainian authorities for failing the Donbas residents and shifting responsibility for the war to Moscow.

Doveryay Delam soon merged with Opposition Bloc, yet this did not help the party to enter the Rada. However, these two political forces still keep the largest faction in Kharkiv city and the regional councils and continue to wield great clout in regional politics. Therefore, ahead of the local elections in Ukraine in 2020, the influence of these parties in Kharkiv (and also Odesa) should not be underestimated.

Hybrid warfare during elections

Since 2014, Kharkiv has seen several acts of terrorism and sabotage linked to Russia and the unrecognised “republics” in Donbas. In 2019, there were also several failed acts of sabotage and fake bomb threats that caused disruptions during the electoral campaign in the city and region. These acts, above all, have revealed Moscow’s intent to depict Ukraine as a failed state that is marred by instability.

Just days before the first round of the presidential election, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) foiled a terrorist attack in the Kharkiv metro. The attacker received explosives from Russia’s security agencies with instructions and a payment of 15,000 US dollars. In another instance, only a month before the parliamentary election, the SSU prevented an act of sabotage at a regional water treatment station. This would have deprived two large cities (Kharkiv and Lozova) of drinking water. The suspect was recruited by Russian security services in early 2019 and was coordinated from Belgorod, a Russian city close to the Ukrainian border, according to the SSU. The investigation revealed that his motive was to provoke a water supply emergency and destabilise the city ahead of the vote.

Anonymous bomb threats also saw a dramatic surge in Kharkiv in the election year. From April to June 2019 alone, there were more than 300 false bomb threats targeting government buildings, educational institutions, hospitals, airports, metro stations, hotels, and a local stadium. On the 21st of July (the election day), an unknown caller threatened bombs at 14 polling stations in the city. The reports proved false. Nevertheless, throughout 2019, 30,000 people were evacuated as a result of these sort of incidents. According to the National Police of Ukraine, the calls mostly came from the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas.

The main purpose of these failed acts of sabotage and bomb threats was to frighten the population, disrupt the voting process, and decrease voter turnout in the city. Above all, this is part of Russia’s hybrid warfare and attempts to undermine Ukraine in front of the world and its own citizens.

Pro-Russian organisations in Kharkiv

For decades, numerous pro-Russian organisations have been active in Kharkiv, including the Russian Movement of Ukraine, Russian Veche (popular assembly), Oplot, South-East, Borot’ba (the Struggle), Ukrainian Choice, Essence of Time, For Cultural and Linguistic Equality, Russian Diaspora in Ukraine, Union of Soviet Officers, Women for Peace, Union of Veterans of the Security Service of Ukraine, Cossacks’ associations, and more. Some of those organizations like Oplot, South-East, and Borot’ba were banned by the Ukrainian courts after the Kremlin-sponsored separatist project “Kharkiv People’s Republic” failed in 2014. Others are still active and foment pro-Russian narratives among the city population, especially during election time.

The Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian branch, UOC-MP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate), is yet another powerful tool of the Kremlin’s influence in the region. UOC-MP has over a third of all the religious adherents in the Kharkiv region, owns schools and higher education institutions, and works closely with local authorities and numerous organisations, including some of those mentioned above. Despite the ongoing war in Donbas and the occupation of Crimea, the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been failing to publicly condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, the UOC-MP clergy in the Kharkiv region held numerous processions and events in 2019 that were based on a narrative of reconciliation with Moscow and Donbas. In such a way, they lent legitimacy to the Kremlin’s false claims that peace in the country depends only on Ukrainians and that Ukraine is engaged in religious persecutions.

Media influence

The 2019 electoral campaign in Ukraine was a hot-button topic amongst a number of popular Kharkiv-focused websites registered in Russia, including nahnews.orgukraina.ruodnarodyna.orgrusdozor.ru, and kharkovchane.ru. These websites pushed Russian propaganda narratives about Ukraine’s elections. Some of those outlets have become a refuge for pro-Russian journalists and analysts who left Kharkiv after Maidan. This includes Konstantin Kevorkyan, Konstantin Dolgov, Dmitry Gubin, and Stanislav Minakov. With high rates of reliance on Russian internet news and social media in the region of Kharkiv, these and other pro-Russian outlets and commentators may still play an influential role.

In fact, the online presence of the Russian media and automated accounts (bots) offers valuable insights concerning the Kremlin’s potential influence in this region. Our media monitoring analysis reveals that, in 2019, Russia-based websites and bloggers contributed globally to over 25 per cent of the debate about Kharkiv politics. This is 47 per cent higher than the percentage of Russia-based websites and bloggers focusing on the general political conversation about the Ukrainian parliamentary election.

Also, we found that nearly 28 per cent of Russian users that tweeted about the Kharkiv region before the parliamentary elections were automated accounts (bots). This compares with only 12.5 per cent of Twitter bots discussing Ukraine as a whole before the parliamentary election. Those figures indicate a high interest on the part of Russian disinformation efforts in the region of Kharkiv during the 2019 election year compared with other regions of Ukraine. The bots amplified typical narratives employed by the Kremlin. This includes Ukraine being overrun by Nazis and Banderites. They also portrayed the leadership of the region (which were not members of Za Zhyttya) and the country (both Poroshenko and Zelenskyy) as belligerent and incompetent.

What next

Ultimately, in the wake of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Kharkiv region saw attempts from the Kremlin to influence the local population through a number of means: overt support for local politicians, the church, pro-Russian organisations, acts of sabotage, and social and traditional media.

However, despite all the above, including the active political support from Moscow, pro-Russian candidates and parties had mixed results in Kharkiv. They failed to secure a greater representation in the new Verkhovna Rada than Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People. Yet, with over 13 per cent of popular support nationwide, the pro-Russian Za Zhyttya still managed to become the second largest party in the new parliament.

Likewise, pro-Russian sentiment in Kharkiv, albeit weaker, remains firmly entrenched. This is because of a number of historical and economic reasons, as well as the wide reach of Russian media.

Kharkiv, therefore, continues to be a fertile breeding ground for future Russian hybrid interference, something that will be tested yet again during the upcoming local elections in 2020. 

You can find the first part on the Odesa region here

Harry Nedelcu, PhD is a senior advisor to Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Secretary General of NATO 2009-2014) and the Alliance of Democracies foundation. He works on issues around elections and democracy. 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 a project coordinator with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation dealing with the analysis and prevention of online foreign interference in Ukraine’s elections. In 2019, he also coordinated a long-term media monitoring team for the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) International Election Observation Mission to Ukraine’s 2019 Elections.

Yuliya Bidenko, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow and associate professor for Karazin Kharkiv National University, Political Science Department. She is an expert for the EU Delegation to Ukraine’s initiative “Team Europe” and Head of NGO “Liberal Club”. She regularly consults international monitoring missions such as OESCE/ODIHR, ENEMO, CANADEM and collaborates with analytical and research institutions in Ukraine, Czech Republic, Germany, and the US.

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