The Ukrainian snap parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 21. According to the latest opinion survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS), at least four political parties are expected to enter the Verkhovna Rada: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People (polling at 52.3 percent among most likely voters), Opposition Platform–For Life of Yuriy Boyko and Vadym Rabinovich (10.3 percent), European Solidarity of previous president Petro Poroshenko (7.9 percent), and the Fatherland (Batkivchina) party, led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (6.2 percent) (Kiis.com.ua, July 15). The estimated support for the political party Voice, headed by popular Ukrainian musician and activist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, as well as Strength and Honor, led by a former head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), Ihor Smeshko, hovers somewhere around the 5 percent electoral threshold needed to enter the legislature, according to KMIS as well as surveys done by pollsters Rating and the Razumkov Center (Ratinggroup.ua, Razumkov.org.ua, July 18). Along with the lawmakers who will be elected in single-member districts, Servant of the People might manage to secure an absolute majority within the 450-seat legislature and rule alone (see EDM, July 15). But at the very least, it will be well positioned to form a governing coalition with one of the other parties.
The election is days away, but pro-Russia political forces have been trying to ramp up their activities in Ukraine for some time now. In recent years, former Ukrainian lawyer and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close associate Viktor Medvedchuk purchased (via local business partners) a number of popular television channels, including 112-Ukraine, NewsOne and Zik (Censor.net.ua, June 14). Last month, following the change in ownership at Zik, dozens of station employees resigned to protest the new management’s pro-Russia information policy that the TV channel would allegedly be forced to adhere to (Censor.net.ua, June 17).
During the recent presidential elections, one of the leaders of the pro-Russia Opposition Platform–For Life (a faction that has its roots in former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions), Yuriy Boyko, received 11.67 percent of the vote in the first round (March 31), putting him in fourth place (Pravda.com.ua, March 31). Just days prior to the first round vote, both Boyko and Medvedchuk traveled to Moscow, where they held official meetings with Russian top officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Alexey Miller, the head of the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. The delegation reportedly discussed a price discount for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine (Nv.ua, March 22). Currently, Boyko’s campaign strategy in the parliamentary elections continues to be to present himself as the only Ukrainian politician capable of striking “positive” deals with Moscow and finally bringing peace to war-ravaged Donbas (see EDM, July 15).
Boyko’s political party is not the sole pro-Moscow grouping presently operating in Ukraine. Notably, lawyer and former deputy head of the Yanukovych presidential administration Andriy Portnov, who had been living in exile since the 2013/2014 EuroMaidan revolution, has recently returned to the country (UNIAN, May 20). Immediately upon his arrival in mid-May, Portnov filed several lawsuits to the local State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) against former president Poroshenko, including charges of illegal enrichment and corruption during the latter’s term in office (Ukrainews.com, May 21). The litigation looks designed to embarrass Poroshenko and undermine popular support for his party, European Solidarity. But according to KMIS, this party’s rating among likely voters has remained statistically unchanged between late May–early June and the first half of July (8.1 versus 7.9 percent, respectively) (Kiis.com.ua, June 10, July 15).
Meanwhile, both the authorities and portions of Ukrainian society have been actively responding to blunt the influence of domestic pro-Russia elements. On July 3, members of the Central Election Commission refused to register Andriy Klyuyev as a candidate in the race. Klyuyev, a one-time Party of Regions deputy and the former head of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential administration, is suspected of gross corruption and embezzlement of state property during his time in government. The SSU believes he has for years been living in Moscow Region, Russia (Ukrinform.net, July 3). One day earlier, pro-Russian video blogger Anatoly Shariy was also denied registration for not having lived outside of Ukraine for the last five years, thus legally making him ineligible to run (112.international, July 3).
Last week (July 8), local activists organized protests against the media outlet NewsOne due to its attempts to conduct a televised teleconference called “Need to Talk” with the state-owned (and notoriously propaganda-driven) Russian TV channel Russia-1. Protesters demanded that authorities strip the Ukrainian station of its operating license and prosecute the channel’s management. Shortly afterwards, NewsOne officially canceled the planned teleconference (Gordonua.com, July 8).
Even more provocatively, channel 112-Ukraine had recently announced it would air Untold Story of Ukraine, a highly politicized documentary produced by American filmmaker and writer Oliver Stone. His film—which features original interviews with Putin and Medvedchuk—heavily promotes the Kremlin’s view on the developments in Ukraine since the EuroMaidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Donbas (which Russia calls a “civil war”) (112.ua, July 2). News of the TV channel’s intentions to air the Stone documentary stirred outrage among some Ukrainian activists, who declared they would organize a protest outside the station’s headquarters on Sunday, July 14. However, the night before, an unidentified official fired a grenade at the building. The SSU is investigating the incident, which blogger Anton Hodza has argued may have been a deliberate provocation to disturb Sunday’s planned peaceful protest. Meanwhile, 112-Ukraine announced it would postpone showing the film for the foreseeable future due to concerns over safety (UNIAN, July 13).
The Kremlin is closely monitoring the parliamentary elections in Ukraine, since the makeup of the next Rada could strongly influence such issues important to Moscow as the Minsk Two ceasefire agreement, Ukraine’s state language laws, energy policy and military modernization efforts. On the other hand, any noticeable rise in pro-Russian sentiment within Ukraine’s political sphere faces serious confrontation from Ukrainian patriotic and nationalist forces, thus threatening to polarize the country further.
At this point, Russia seems to be pursuing the ancient “divide and conquer” strategy, pushing and pulling on both ideological extremes of Ukrainian society. This approach proved successful one hundred years ago, when Russian Bolsheviks seized the country and proclaimed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Now Moscow is apparently trying to repeat that success by infiltrating Ukraine with pro-Russian loyalists, conducting informational operations, polarizing society, and attempting to cut Kyiv from its Western backers.