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The role of Russia in recent events in Ukraine and its implications for the Black Sea region

Opportunities for Russia to increase its influence in Ukraine are always present due to the legacies of a shared past. The ongoing conflict between President Zelenskyy and the Constitutional Court could create new one’s.

January 15, 2021 - Maryna Parfenchuk - Articles and Commentary

Demonstration outside the building of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine on October 30th 2020. Photo: Review News / Shutterstock

Ukraine has been the focus of international attention for two reasons in recent months. Apart from local elections held in October, a controversial ruling by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court regarding government officials’ assets has sparked a constitutional crisis in Kyiv. Both events have significantly undermined popular support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his ruling Servant of the People party. This steady decline in support for the current political authorities, as well as an economy weakened by the coronavirus, have enabled pro-Russian forces to reassert their position in the country. These groups now pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions.

Recent local elections have revealed a growing trend of support for pro-Russian rhetoric in the south-east of the country. During the last local elections in 2015, the population of the southern states voted for pro-Russian oligarchic parties. This vote occurred soon after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbas. Overall, a trend in favour of pro-Russian parties is clear in the region. Southern Ukraine, with its direct access to the Black Sea, has shown a tendency to be the most pro-Russian region in the country. In contrast, pro-European Western Ukraine has counterbalanced this view.

Western media is often quick to investigate possible Russian influence in Ukraine’s electoral process. This is likely due to the clear pro-Western rhetoric of the country’s current elites. However, it is perhaps more helpful to examine the profiles of these parties in order to better understand Ukrainian politics’ relationship with Russia.

Despite the fact that voter turnout at this year’s local elections was only 36.88 per cent (compared to 46.6 per cent in 2015), the breakdown in party support was largely the same as the previous vote. According to the Central Election Commission, the three most popular parties in October 2020 were Servant of the People (14.82 per cent), Fatherland (10.41 per cent) and Opposition Platform – For Life (9.85 per cent). This was a similar result to the 2015 elections, when the leading parties were Solidarity – Bloc of Petro Poroshenko (19.5 per cent), Fatherland (12.1 per cent) and Opposition Bloc (11.5 per cent). As a result, a more in-depth look at the parties’ founders and leaders may prove useful in understanding Russia’s impact on elections.

  • Opposition Platform secured the most votes in the Black Sea area. The party represents a pro-Russian section of society that openly opposed the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. It is led by the pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is considered “Putin’s unofficial representative in Ukraine”. He is even the godfather of one of Putin’s daughters. Medvedchuk has been involved in Ukrainian politics since independence. He served as first deputy chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) in 2000-01. Between 2002-05 he was head of President Leonid Kuchma’s presidential administration.
  • European Solidarity is led by former President Petro Poroshenko, a business oligarch and one of the richest people in Ukraine. He built his business career in the 1990s by focusing on a confectionery industry suffering from a shortage of supplies following the Soviet collapse. While building his empire, Poroshenko also focused on his political career. He served under three of his four presidential predecessors. Poroshenko was a parliament member under President Leonid Kuchma, a founding father of the powerful pro-Russian Party of Regions. This group later paved the way for Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency. Poroshenko has worked in top government posts, such as secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine. Following this, he served as Ukraine’s foreign minister under President Viktor Yushchenko. Poroshenko was also economy and trade minister under Yanukovych.
  • Fatherland is led by Yulia Tymoshenko, a controversial figure who earned a reputation as a glamorous revolutionary opposed to the country’s oligarchs. At the same time, she has also been imprisoned for stealing Russian gas. Tymoshenko earned her wealth in the mid-1990s by establishing United Energy Systems of Ukraine, which helped supply gas to the newly independent country’s huge industrial base. By some estimates, she became one of the richest people in Ukraine and was nicknamed “the gas princess”.
  • For the future is the most recent project of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, a former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and one of the wealthiest person in Ukraine since 2006. Just like other political elites in Ukraine, he built his power on the ruins of the Soviet regime. For example, he founded one of Ukraine’s largest banks during the turf wars of the turbulent and lawless 1990s. Kolomoisky has often been accused of having close business ties to President Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party. Suspicions only grew regarding these links after Zelenskyy appointed Kolomoisky’s former lawyer Andriy Bohdan as his chief of staff.

The local election results have shown that Zelenskyy and his party failed to keep political promises made during last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. As a result, public disappointment and distrust saw Ukrainians vote in large numbers for parties led by people who represent a destructive form of post-Soviet corruption. This problem crippled the country’s growth following independence in 1991.

Following the local elections, international media outlets have often hinted at Russian interference. This includes disinformation and the manipulation of the election process. Some parts of the Western media have also suggested that Russia now sees an opportunity to weaken the power of Zelenskyy and his party. As a result, the Kremlin is supposedly using pro-Russian oligarchs to re-establish complete control over Ukraine. This strategy would challenge Ukraine’s potential Euro-Atlantic integration, as well as its sovereignty as a whole. However, these journalists may be overestimating Moscow’s influence and soft power in its regional neighbourhood. The current instability in Ukraine is more likely caused by the continuing existence of a backward ‘Soviet mentality’ among sections of the political elite. This has led politicians to prioritise self-profit over any genuine commitment to a pro-Russian or pro-Western direction.

There has been a debate of Russian dissatisfaction with the local election’s date because the resolution on appointing local elections tied the voting in the annexed Crimea by Russia and some districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. According to Minsk agreements, it would only be possible until “the cessation of temporary occupation and armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and “restoration of full control of Ukraine over the state border” could be resolved. For this reason, some believed that Kremlin hoped to implement the Minsk agreements on its own terms. In 2015, Poroshenko’s party and political trajectory clearly showed the pro-Western orientation of Ukraine’s political ambitions and hence, made it impossible for Russia to manipulate the Minsk agreements in its favor. However, the so-called “Steinmeier formula”, an agreement between Russia and Ukraine proposed by the German foreign minister which made the parties agree to hold local elections in the separatist-held territories of Donbas 1) only under Ukrainian law; 2) only after Russian forces are withdrawn and Ukraine regains control of the state border, changed the dynamics of negotiations with Kyiv. After signing the formula in 2019, Russia had a leverage to keep its control in the region and push forthe implementation of the Minsk agreements in the way the Russian side wanted. This would mean that local elections held in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk could be held before Kyiv gains control of the border. This is precisely the outcome desired in Moscow. Nevertheless, Russian dissatisfaction does not automatically mean interference. It is clear from recent history that Ukraine’s political landscape has been characterised by the actions and economic desires of long-standing elites, who have attempted to find a balance between benefactors from both Russia and the West.

Just a few days after the local elections, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of abolishing a law related to the mandatory disclosure of government officials’ assets and financial gains. In what amounts to a clear step backwards for Ukraine’s democratic aspirations, the court’s ruling allows officials to release false or unreliable information without facing any criminal liability. Naturally, the ruling was negatively received by the population at large. Many people now believe that the decision was the result of Russian interference in Ukrainian politics. On the day of the court’s decision, President Zelenskyy declared that “pro-Russian MPs and those supported by oligarchs” were responsible for this push back against Kyiv’s judiciary and anti-corruption campaign. However, it seems difficult to suggest that Russia has plans to take over Ukraine, with this rhetoric allowing current decision-makers to avoid responsibility.

Before the presidential election in 2019, President Zelenskyy “forgot” to declare that he owned a villa in Italy. This 15 room property is situated in Forte dei Marmi, a town well known for its popularity among Russian oligarchs. Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Prokhorov all own properties in Forte dei Marmi. Zelenskyy also faced criticism following his decision to move into the residence of former President Viktor Yuschenko. The annual maintenance cost of this 134-hectare estate in Koncha-Zaspa is estimated at 30 million Ukrainian hryvnia (approximately 1.1 million US dollars). Due to this, the constitutional crisis in Ukraine cannot be entirely attributed to Russian interference.

Western media often exaggerates the role of Russia in the affairs of its neighbour and underestimates the realities of the post-Soviet political mentality of Ukraine. This was demonstrated during Ukraine’s recent local elections and constitutional crisis which once again proved that the state is still largely in the hands of those who managed to enrich and profit from the collapse of Soviet Union. The mentality of the political elites in the country seeks profit in a form of popular appeal, populism and declarative narrative which manipulates the cultural, ethnic or language-based complexity of Ukrainian post-communist legacy. The post-Soviet identity of the Ukrainian people is grounded in ideological and social differences that were used to build human hierarchies for 69 years of the Soviet Union’s existence and continues to be reproduced today in the capitalist environment. Disappointment mixed with nostalgia for socialism and existing human taxonomies mixed with hastily adapted historical materialist dogmas are translated into political disbelief and frustration by the people. Today’s popular support is based on promises for better life conditions rather than liberal democratic attitudes, values or plans of the politicians. Hence, Russia has little to do with the Ukrainian sudden changes of political direction, however, a new window of opportunity for Russia to increase its influence in Ukraine is always present due to the legacies of the shared past.

Looking at the current electoral map of Ukraine, it is clear that the country’s south-east has become increasingly pro-Russian in its outlook. The question remains whether Ukraine possesses enough political power to counterbalance this influence. It is also uncertain if Ukraine’s Western allies are pressuring the country enough regarding its commitment to democratisation. Should these issues not be addressed, it is likely that growing domestic alienation will prevail in Ukraine. This could even lead to a new frozen conflict in and around the country’s south, which contains regions vital to Kyiv’s access to the sea.

Maryna Parfenchuk is a young graduate in European and Global Affairs, an activist, and a researcher of the Eastern European region. She is currently a freelance journalist writing about politics and society in Ukraine.

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