February 26, 2021

The political struggle in Kyiv heats up


The battles at the heart of Ukraine’s political and interconnected economic systems are intensifying. The stakes are being raised and clearly the knives are out.

In this situation where, as is usual in the Ukrainian context, so much happens behind the scenes and transparency is not a given, it is important to try and make sense of what is seen and what can be gauged.

During the second half of February President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stepped up his counter-offensive on a broad front against political adversaries ranging from those viewed as Russia’s “fifth columnists” to corrupt oligarchs and energy barons, as well as those claiming to be the only true patriots and defenders of Ukraine’s national interests. He also called for the Kyiv Administrative Court, notorious for its corrupt practices, to be dissolved.

Those on the receiving end include not only Victor Medvedchuk, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crony, but also rogue oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is accused of embezzling billions from Ukraine’s largest bank – Privatbank – when he effectively owned it, as well as Ukraine’s previous president, another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, who continues to claim that he is Ukraine’s only real defender.

At the beginning of February, acting on the recommendations of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), Mr. Zelenskyy approved sanctions against three TV channels, owned in reality by Mr. Medvedchuk. Those channels have been accused of threatening Ukraine’s state security by being purveyors, during a time of war, of Russian disinformation and propaganda.

On February 19, the NSDC also imposed sanctions against 19 entities and eight individuals, including Mr. Medvedchuk and his wife, Oksana Marchenko. The sanctions were imposed on their property and assets. Furthermore, just before that, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) charged pro-Kremlin blogger Anatoliy Shariy with high treason and hate speech.

Predictably, these sudden moves against the flagbearers of Russia’s fifth column precipitated outrage in their ranks, as well as in the Kremlin; charges of censorship and dictatorship were levelled against Mr. Zelenskyy and his team.

Public opinion polls provide a revealing picture of the current state of affairs. According to the latest poll conducted by the Rating Sociological Group published on February 24, 58 percent of the respondents supported the NSDC decision, while 28 percent did not. Among those who were well informed about this decision, 73 percent declared their support, while 23 percent opposed it.

The same group of sociologists reported that 52 percent of Ukrainians believe the decision to impose sanctions against Mr. Medvedchuk was brought about by his pro-Russian position; 30 percent thought it was merely part of a showdown between oligarchs. Also, 13 percent said it was done at the behest of the United States, and 10 percent believed the move was meant to pressure the pro-Russian faction in parliament.
Having struck a serious blow against Mr. Medvedchuk and his Russian patrons, Mr. Zelenskyy has since also moved in dramatic fashion against Mr. Kolomoisky. On February 22, the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) arrested the former deputy chairman of Privatbank, a Ukrainian bank at the center of an FBI criminal investigation, as he attempted to fly abroad.

The suspect, Volodymyr Yatsenko, was detained after the private jet he was traveling in was forced to return to Kyiv. He and two others have been charged with embezzlement while at PrivatBank, once the nation’s largest lender.

Mr. Kolomoisky is a billionaire tycoon who owns major energy, metals and media assets. He commands a sizable following among deputies in Ukraine’s parliament, including among Mr. Zelenskyy’s own Servant of the People faction. The president’s supporters are now publicly calling to task those who once depicted him as Mr. Kolomoisky’s “puppet,” or even “clown.”

So now the question of the quality of Mr. Zelenskyy’s team has come to the forefront. It is clear that the capable and usually politically adroit Dmytro Razumkov, Mr. Zelenskyy’s former close associate during the presidential election in early 2019 and a former ally, is now but a barely disguised opponent. Additionally, Andriy Yermak, the president’s chief of staff, has been conspicuously silent and out of the picture in recent weeks.

On the other hand, a new figure has suddenly found the spotlight. Secretary of the NSDC Oleksiy Danilov, who until the last month or so had remained in the background, is now front and center. The former veteran and later senior official from Luhansk, who stayed loyal to Ukraine, has been Mr. Zelenskyy’s chief spokesman in explaining why he has moved against Mr. Medvedchuk, his TV channels and the fifth columnists generally. And on TV Mr. Danilov has come across as calm, collected and a patriot. He has let it be known that more “shocks” are to be expected shortly.

How has all this been reflected in the most recent public opinion polls? According to a survey conducted by the Rating Sociological Group published on February 24, Mr. Zelenskyy and the Servant of the People party continue to maintain a lead in approval ratings.

If presidential elections were held now, 23.1 percent of respondents who have made up their mind would support the incumbent president. On the other hand, 14.4 percent of respondents would vote for ex-President Petro Poroshenko; 11.3 percent would vote for co-chair of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party Yuriy Boyko, and 10.9 percent for the leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Meanwhile, the Servant of the People party has recovered slightly and again tops the parliamentary ranking with 19.7 percent approval, followed by European Solidarity Party at 16.2 percent, the Opposition Platform – For Life Party at 14.2 percent and the Batkivshchyna Party 12 percent.

From this it is clear that if Messrs. Zelenskyy and Poroshenko remain irreconcilable – which in the present circumstances appears to be the case – then Ms. Tymoshenko’s stock rises as a potential coalition partner for either of the first two to keep the pro-Russian forces out, or as the potential situational ally of the Opposition Block – For Life. Popular slogans about the need to defend the population during the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising prices of domestic fuel prices serve Ms. Tymoshen­ko’s cause. Small wonder she has begun calling for early parliamentary elections.

One of the significant battles being waged in recent week has revolved around the figure of Yuriy Vitrenko, a maverick and capable technocrat who masterminded and led Ukraine’s seemingly impossible case in international arbitration against Russia’s giant Gazprom. Ukraine won the case, which came with sizable economic benefits.

Despite his notable contribution and untainted reputation, or perhaps precisely because of it, Mr. Vitrenko was unceremoniously laid off from Naftogaz last May. Yet, a few months ago, Mr. Zelenskyy suddenly remembered him and has sought to have him appointed as the energy minster – the energy sphere having traditionally been crucial for the nation, but it has also been a feeding trough for oligarchs and their auxiliaries. Mr. Zelenskyy evidently sees Mr. Vitrenko as a potential valuable asset if he can get him on board at this delicate moment.

Because he is not linked to any of the energy barons, Mr. Vitrenko’s candidacy for energy minister, despite the president’s backing, has been rejected twice in December and January by a parliament in which the president’s own faction let him down badly because of its susceptibility to external influences from vested interests. He was left to operate in this acting role with substantially limited powers.

On February 23, however, Mr. Zelenskyy struck back utilizing a formula circumventing this blockade, as 267 of parliament’s 350 members voted to approve amendments to legislation that removed restrictions on an acting minister’s duties and powers if the post remains unfilled. In other words, Mr. Vitrenko is now able to act as the de-facto energy minister, to the consternation of all those who do not want to see an independent, strong and experienced specialist in that position.

The vote was also significant in that it signified that the Servant of the People faction – it provided 226 of the votes in favor (Mr. Razumkov being one of those who abstained) – had regrouped after months of being unruly and unpredictable in its behavior and has begun acting as a unified force again. If this continues, it means that with the support of independent lawmakers it has enough votes to pass bills unrelated to constitutional changes.

Meanwhile, other developments are turning attention from the key issues at hand. Opponents of the president, especially Mr. Poroshenko, have been quick to blame Mr. Zelenskyy for the unfolding, ugly case concerning the trial of Odesa activist Serhiy Sternenko. At this stage, however, Mr. Zelenskyy has no control over the corrupt and criminal elements in Odesa’s administration and court system. Demonstrators have appeared on the streets of several cities and before the presidential office building in Kyiv.

Mr. Sternenko was sentenced on February 23 to seven years in jail for kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons. On February 24, investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko reminded Mr. Poro­shenko that it was he who approved the transfer to Odesa of the scandalous judge who passed down Mr. Sternenko’s sentence. It is hoped that the appeals court, especially if an appeal takes place outside of Odesa, will see that justice is done.

And so, the political infighting and recriminations continue. Fortunately, there are signs that all of this is not just political mudslinging, but rather something far more serious – a critical, and possibly defining, moment in the making.