The judge’s ruling stunned the courtroom. For the first time since independence, a Ukrainian court – in clear violation of the Constitution – ordered that a book be banned and the plaintiff’s name removed from its contents. The judge, Maryna Zastavnenko, suspected of having ties to and property in the Russian-occupied “DNR” [Donetsk “people’s republic”], decided that the book “violates” the plaintiff’s “right to honor and dignity.”
The plaintiff, Viktor Medvedchuk, happens to be one of the most reviled and hated men in Ukraine, and the offending chapter that so “violated” the plaintiff’s “honor and dignity” dealt with his complicity in the persecution of Ukrainian dissidents in the 1970s. In fact, that persecution was doubly heinous in that he was appointed their defense attorney, but cooperated with the prosecution in condemning them and urging an extension of imprisonment. One such victim, the poet Vasyl Stus, died in prison under mysterious circumstances. The other, Mykola Kuntsevych, had his prison term extended by 21 months after Mr. Medvedchuk “poured more dirt on him than the prosecutor.” And another, Yuriy Lytvyn, was convicted and died in prison.
Mr. Medvedchuk has been variously described as a “cancer on Ukraine’s political scene,” the “undisputed leader of [Vladimir] Putin’s fifth column in Ukraine,” and a “perpetrator” in the bloody events of the Maidan. His daughter, Daryna, has Mr. Putin as a godfather and Dmitry Medvedev’s wife as a godmother – designations considered to be those of an extended “family.” He is married to a Russophile Ukrainian singer, Oksana Marchenko, and his wealth is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Although Mr. Medvedchuk’s early political career was unsuccessful, with only 1-2 percent support in the polls, his current pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life (OPFL) party now holds 44 seats in the Verkhovna Rada and often joins with Ihor Kolomoisky’s For the Future party, which holds 24 seats, constituting a dangerous 15 percent voting bloc. His party enjoys 18 percent support in the polls. Add to this a gallery of oligarchs, such as Yuriy Boyko, Nestor Shufrich, Taras Kozak, and Vadym Rabinovich, and Mr. Medvedchuk hangs like a dark cloud over Ukraine’s future.
We see his influence in the book banning decision, and the damage he can do in partnership with Ukraine’s Constitutional Court by nearly destroying the nation’s anti-corruption infrastructure and banking system. Had Mr. Medvedchuk and the Court prevailed, Ukraine would have risked billions in IMF support, possible bankruptcy, and economic chaos and privation. After Mr. Medvedchuk’s brief stint with Ukraine’s delegation to the Minsk negotiations, former President Leonid Kravchuk accused him of “colluding” with Russia amidst an ongoing war. Collusion is easy for Mr. Medvedchuk who, contrary to Ukrainian law, flies freely in his private jet to visit Mr. Putin. He never misses a chance to lend aid and comfort to the enemy.
What has made it possible for Mr. Medvedchuk to regain his footing and position himself as a grave threat to Ukraine’s statehood in less than two decades? The answer is money and media. A large part of his income comes from Mr. Putin’s generous allocation of large Russian assets for his use, making it possible for him and his associates to steadily acquire much of the nation’s media. In addition to his control of three television news channels through his partner, Taras Kozak, he holds large ownership interests in some of Ukraine’s most popular channels, such as 1+1. According to former Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukraine is in danger of losing control over its domestic information space. “Putin controls 50 percent of Ukrainian news channels, so he can easily control 50 percent of Ukrainian minds and hearts,” Mr. Yatseniuk said.
Early in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – at the behest of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council – closed three TV news channels controlled by Mr. Medvedchuk because “the channels had been transformed into an instrument of [Russian] propaganda…and receive financing from Russia.” Mr. Rabinovych, co-chairman of Mr. Medvedchuk’s party, called the legislators and Mr. Zelenskyy “fascist devils” and sang a Soviet World-War II-era song at the podium. The very next day the three channels resumed broadcasting on YouTube TV. They could barely restrain themselves in whining about “censorship” on behalf of a boss who managed the censorship of unflattering disclosures of his career.
But Ukraine’s media space is not the only battleground between Russia and Ukraine. Politicians with virtually unlimited funds can create mayhem across the land through bribery, thuggery, paid riots and rallies, “contracts,” and a wide spectrum of dirty tricks, such as staging “nationalist” rallies for opposing presidential candidates under neo-Nazi banners, or spreading disinformation about (non-existent) U.S. biological centers using Ukrainians for testing. Although the banning of the news channels is a much overdue “hit” on Russia’s ability to pollute Ukraine’s informational space, Mr. Medvedchuk’s money allows him to continue acquiring and holding substantial interests in other media, both openly and secretly.
Mr. Medvedchuk controls dozens of companies involved in various types of transactions, including shell companies, but most of his assets are derived from Russian fossil fuels. Specifically, the Kremlin made available, through competitive bidding, extraction rights to a huge 40-million-ton oil deposit. But the terms of the bid ensured only one successful bidder – Mr. Medvedchuk, through his wife, Oksana Marchenko. The oil is processed in a Rostov refinery largely owned by Mr. Medvedchuk’s wife, and shipped via tanker across the Kerch Strait to Houston where it is sold to an ExxonMobil subsidiary at an estimated annual income of $150 million. In addition, Mr. Medvedchuk gained control of more than 30 percent of diesel fuel imports to Ukraine and a major amount of its liquefied gas market. With such large revenues at his disposal, Mr. Medvedchuk – even without his media channels – is able to purchase huge amounts of ads favoring his party and pro-Russian politicians.
One very important point to keep in mind is that almost all the references to Mr. Medvedchuk’s “ownership” of various businesses mean “beneficial” ownership. After U.S. sanctions were imposed on him under the Global Magnitsky Act in 2014, he bypassed them by signing over title to his assets to relatives and close friends, including his wife and daughters, while publicly mocking the sanctions as powerless in preventing him from conducting business with U.S. entities. His wife acknowledges that she knows very little about business, but she doesn’t have to, as Mr. Medvedchuk has been running the show.
A petition has been submitted in the fall of last year from a coalition of 18 Ukrainian civil society organizations, headed by the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, requesting that the U.S. and EU governments extend the 2014 sanctions against Mr. Medvedchuk to include his wife and daughters, his close associate, Mr. Kozak, and all the companies they control.
There may not be a great deal that most Ukrainians in the diaspora can do to bring down Ukraine’s enemies. But this is one HUGE enemy whose wings can be clipped. Please write your Congressman and Senators to tighten the loopholes in the Global Magnitsky Act (such as signing over nominal ownership of assets to family and friends or using intermediaries in the conduct of business) so that the sanctions really hurt, rather than simply serve as a joke among the “impacted” oligarchs and miscreants. The current administration intends to use the Global Magnitsky Act as an important tool in conducting foreign policy. Let’s help make it so.