A Ukrainian voter in 2014.
A Ukrainian voter in 2014.

Rival Parties Battle for Votes in Southeast Ukraine

July 19, 2019
Konstantin Skorkin
This op-ed was originally published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The schism in the pro-Russia camp is preventing the return of the political model of two Ukraines, a model that is the perfect breeding ground for politicians who boost their ratings by fanning the flames of the interregional confrontation in the country. Typically, the same thing is happening in western Ukraine, too, where unity in the pro-European-patriotic camp has been splintered by rivalry between former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party and rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos (Voice) party.

The campaign for Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on July 21 has held far fewer surprises than the presidential election earlier this spring, won by former comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky. Sociologists predict a clear victory for Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. 

Its only serious competitor is the pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party, heir of the former ruling Party of Regions, which is trying to lure away voters from the pro-presidential favorites in Ukraine’s southeastern regions. The Opposition Platform is, however, not the only successor of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s party to have thrown its hat into the ring in the fight for the southeast and for pro-Russia voters.

Unity among those who emerged from the Party of Regions to form the Opposition Bloc following the 2014 revolution was shattered by the presidential elections this spring. Two influential groupings—supporters of the oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Vadim Novinsky on one side, and Putin crony Viktor Medvedchuk’s group supported by oligarch Dmytro Firtash’s gas lobby on the other—were unable to agree on a joint candidate. And so the Opposition Bloc splintered.

As a result, two new political forces appeared in Ukraine. The first, Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform-For Life party, was represented in the presidential elections by Yuriy Boyko, who took fourth place and won the first round of the election in the parts of Donbas under Kiev’s control. The second, Akhmetov’s Opposition Bloc, supported Oleksandr Vilkul, the former governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, who came in eighth. Right from the start, both parties fought hard to claim the legacy of the Party of Regions, which was the leading force in Ukrainian politics in 2004–2014.

Today, the main criterion for pro-Russia voters in Ukraine’s southeast is politicians’ ability to reach an agreement on bringing peace to the Donbas and de-escalating tensions with Russia. In this respect, there is no contest: Medvedchuk has close ties to the Kremlin, which he has demonstrated in a multitude of ways.

The main task for the leaders of the Opposition Platform is to show their voters that President Zelensky is weak and inconsequential, and that unlike Medvedchuk, no one in Moscow is prepared to deal with him. With the help of the media resources under their control, they are trying to demonstrate that the new president is merely a slightly softer version of his predecessor Poroshenko, and that he is acting at the orders of his Western backers, who won’t allow him to end the confrontation with Russia. 

Meanwhile, Medvedchuk has already negotiated the release of Ukrainian prisoners being held in Donbas, is ready to extend the hand of friendship to Moscow and the self-proclaimed republics of the Donbas, and Moscow is willing to agree gas contracts with him on terms favorable to Ukraine. This is also a signal to Zelensky that he will not be able to hold talks with Moscow without involving Medvedchuk.

This tactic, however, only finds resonance with the most radical pro-Russia voters. The Opposition Platform is predicted to take second place in votes cast under the party list system, but that is just 10–13 percent of votes. That will only enable the party to form a small faction of 35–36 deputies (plus however many are elected under the single-member system) out of 450, and to restore Medvedchuk to top-level politics in Kiev as deputy speaker of the parliament, if it does indeed take second place. 

In other respects, the Opposition Platform will find itself in political isolation in the new parliament. The victors are unlikely to be prepared to enter into any kind of coalition with it, if one should be necessary, judging it too toxic. Most probably, the party will remain in opposition, as its name suggests.

The blame for this doesn’t just lie with the radical pro-Russia rhetoric of Medvedchuk, which is extreme even for a Ukrainian society tired of Poroshenko’s militant stance. It’s also a result of the quest for revenge on which the Opposition Platform seems set. Its party list is full of unpopular figures from the Yanukovych era, and against this backdrop, key figures from the southeast regional elite are in no hurry to run under the banner of the Opposition Platform. This opens up opportunities for rival factions within the heirs to the Party of Regions.

Meanwhile, Akhmetov’s Opposition Bloc has formed an alliance with the mayors of large cities in the southeast, including Kharkiv, Odessa, and Mariupol, who have significant administrative resources and influence over voters. Medvedchuk’s party responded by tapping its Moscow resources: Russian TV channel NTV aired a damning program about the criminal past of the mayors of Kharkiv and Odessa.

The unofficial curator of the new alliance is apparently the tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, who has been accused of being Zelensky’s puppet master, and who has a vested interest in limiting the success of Medvedchuk’s party in the southeast. This tactic of introducing spoiler parties to tempt votes away from the Opposition Bloc was tried and tested back in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Since the party has low ratings, the Opposition Bloc is staking everything on the single-member districts by fielding influential local candidates there. This tactic is already bearing fruit: the party’s candidates are forecast to win in most districts in the Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk regions. Once they have created a regional lobby, the oligarchs will be in a position to negotiate with the president on forming a majority. 

Kolomoisky, Akhmetov, and the other oligarchs have a keen interest, therefore, in limiting the power not only of Medvedchuk but of Servant of the People too. Right now, the presidential party’s Achilles heel is the single-member districts. The newly created party simply doesn’t have enough human resources in the regions to field strong candidates everywhere. 

It’s the single-member districts in the east of the country that are the main intrigue of the parliamentary elections: can public demand for fresh blood to rule the country overcome the system created by local clans, in which year after year the electorate votes for local business magnates and other benefactors?

For all the skepticism this question elicits, much has already been done. Not long ago it would have been impossible to imagine a situation in which the outcome of the elections was not certain in a district in the Donbas where Akhmetov’s right-hand man Borys Kolesnikov is running against Sergei Sivokho, a comedian from Donetsk who was formerly on the same comedy TV show, KVN, as Zelensky. This is testimony to the major changes seen in a region that was in the past known for its extremely low political competition. Even the rivalry between two parties for the status of the new Party of Regions is diluting the legacy of that party, which was founded on political hegemony and conformity of ideas. 

The schism in the pro-Russia camp plays another important role: it is preventing a return to the political model of two Ukraines, a model that is the perfect breeding ground for politicians who boost their ratings by fanning the flames of the interregional confrontation in the country. Typically, the same thing is happening in western Ukraine, too, where unity in the pro-European-patriotic camp has been shattered by rivalry between Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos party. The main beneficiary of the collapse of the old political divide will be not so much Zelensky, but Ukrainian society itself.


Konstantin Skorkin

Konstantin Skorkin is an independent journalist specializing in Donbass affairs.

Photo by OSCE shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.