Oligarchs and Their Media Outlets Influence Ukrainian Presidential Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 19

(Source: Mediasat)

Five years since the EuroMaidan and “Revolution of Dignity” fervently rejected systemic corruption and graft, Ukrainian politics continues to experience enormous influence from local oligarchs. In this environment, Ukraine’s presidential election campaign is in full-swing, with the vote scheduled for March 31. To date, 59 declared and 28 registered candidates are vying for the country’s top position in government (Ukrayinska Pravda, February 1).

On January 29, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko declared his intention to run for a second term. The Kyiv-based “Rating” company has found his popular support at only 15.1 percent among decided voters, thus putting him in third place. The first- and second-place finishers in the poll are popular Ukrainian comedian Volodymir Zelensky and former prime minister and current leader of the Batkivchyna (Fatherland) party, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who garnered 19 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively. If those results hold steady until election day, Zelensky and Tymoshenko are likely to face one another in a second-round vote. Significantly, according to the same polling agency, Poroshenko leads in the “anti-rating” results: half of all respondents polled said they would refuse to support him under any circumstances (Ratinggroup.ua, January 31).

The Ukrainian authorities and President Poroshenko himself can truthfully point to a number of important achievements over the last five years. These include stabilizing the country’s economy, deterring further overt Russian military incursions into Donbas, making considerable improvements to the Ukrainian military, signing an Association Agreement with the European Union and obtaining visa-free travel to the bloc, as well as receiving autocephaly (independence) for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate. Nonetheless, many serious challenges remain largely unaddressed since 2014. One of the most important promises Poroshenko made during his first presidential rally was to weaken Ukraine’s oligarchy, which, over the last two decades, had deeply penetrated national politics via its business interests. But the list of the country’s richest tycoons has remained largely unchanged since Poroshenko’s team came to power; and notably, their hold on the political system persists.

According to a survey of Ukraine’s 100 richest individuals, published last year by the magazine Focus, the number one spot is occupied by Rinat Akhmetov, a local businessman and head of the industrial corporation SCM Group. Akhmetov’s fortune is estimated at $3.1 billion. He is followed by Ihor Kolomoyski, who holds $1.6 billion in assets, while his business partner Gennady Boholiubov is listed in third place, with a net wealth reportedly worth $1.5 billion. These men are followed by the founder of EastOne Group LLC and son-in-law of former president Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk, who has $1.44 billion. The 45-year-old tycoon Konstantin Zhevago places fifth, with $1 billion to his name. President Poroshenko appears in 11th place, with assets estimated at $542 million. (Focus.ua, April 27, 2018). Importantly, all these fortunes are playing and can be expected to continue to play a significant role in the presidential as well as subsequent parliamentary elections this year. And one of the most important tools of political influence is the oligarchs’ control over Ukrainian print and television media outlets.

According to a 2016 investigation by the Institute of Mass Media and the local Ukrainian chapter of Reporters Without Borders, oligarchs and politicians were found to own 75 percent of the domestic media landscape (Ukrayinska Pravda, October 11, 2016). It can be assumed that these numbers remain accurate today. Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, owns one of the country’s most viewed TV channels, TRK Ukraine, which draws 8.24 percent of the national audience (Mresearcher.com, December 5, 2018). His media outlet favorably presents Poroshenko’s campaign activities. At the same time, however, Akhmetov’s TV channel also supports another candidate Oleksandr Vilkul, who was nominated by the Opposition Bloc party. Created out of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, the Opposition Bloc currently has 38 seats in Ukraine’s parliament and enjoys Akhmetov’s patronage (Gordonua.com, January 20).

The country’s fourth-richest oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk, controls the company Star Light Media, which includes three of Ukraine’s top five most popular television channels—STB, ICTV and Noviy Kanal. Pinchuk’s media outlets provide relatively equal access to all the main candidates as it is difficult to predict who will go on to enter the second round of voting and, ultimately, to win the elections. As such, Pinchuk appears to be considering neutrality as his best option.

Channel 1+1 regularly draws the largest TV audience (11.67 percent) and is owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyski. Having been expelled from Ukraine because of alleged corruption schemes in late 2016, Kolomoyski remains one of Poroshenko’s strongest critics. Since 2011, 1+1 has a contract with “95th Quarter Studio,” a popular TV show of comedian Volodymir Zelensky, who currently leads among all presidential contenders (Gordonua.com, January 31; see EDM, February 11). This makes 1+1 the most popular platform for Poroshenko’s detractors.

Another expelled oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, along with his business partner Serhiy Lyovochkin, owns the TV channel Inter—the country’s sixth most popular, attracting 5.71 percent of the Ukrainian audience. Firtash is a former co-founder of the gas trading company RosUkrEnergo. In 2014, he was accused of corruption and money laundering. The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been seeking his extradition over allegations that he paid some $18.5 million in bribes to obtain permits to mine titanium in India (Occrp.org, February 21, 2017). Last year, Inter’s other co-owner, Lyovochkin, officially joined the pro-Russian opposition party For Life and recently endorsed its presidential candidate, former deputy prime minister Yuriy Boyko (Strana.ua, January 29).

A final influential player in Ukraine’s media market is Viktor Medvedchuk, another leader inside the For Life party. Last year, Medvedchuk’s associates purchased Channel 112 and NewsOne (both among the top 20 most popular Ukrainian TV channels) (Ukropnews24.com, December 14, 2018). Since then, Medvedchuk and members of his party have regularly appeared as guests on programs broadcast on these channels. The oligarch does not hide his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin: in 2004, Putin became godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter, Daria.

Despite repeated political promises since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 to break Ukraine’s oligarchy, over the past five years that system has arguably grown even more entrenched, with control of the media by a handful of billionaires continuing to play a defining role in domestic politics. Therefore, to achieve any hope of winning the presidential elections, all the candidates must navigate the complex pitfalls of relationships with the country’s oligarchs.