The Opposition Platform – For Life (Za Zhyttia) and the Opposition Bloc have the same roots. They are the legacy of the regime of runaway president Viktor Yanukovych. For the July 2019 parliamentary elections, however, they have run separately, and with dramatically different chances of success. The fact that both parties can exist on Ukraine’s political landscape signals that the fight for a pro-western course in Ukraine is not over.
After the escape of disgraced ex-president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, his Party of Regions acquired an indelibly tarnished reputation, even among former supporters. By the summer of 2014, some 1 million members had left.
Having held more than 41% of seats in the 2012 Parliament, the Party of Regions had zero chances for the snap elections in 2014 – no surprise that it didn’t run at all. However, the void they left was not filled. Many people who hadn’t supported the Euromaidan Revolution – most of them in the east – did not support those who took power after the revolution. Exacerbating the division, Russia ramped up its propaganda in the eastern regions, whitewashing their aggression in the Donbas.
This galvanized the opposition political forces, and their revenge strategy was put in place. A large part of the Party of Regions members funded the Party of Development of Ukraine. Five additional parties joined the movement and they united into a single body – the Opposition Bloc. Every subsequent candidate of this new party has been – to varying degrees – related to the former Yanukovych regime.
In 2014, the Opposition Bloc received 9.43% of votes. Media termed their union a “marriage of convenience,” and the difficulties in communication between factions have been evident from their very inception.
A major issue is that the new party was comprised of three disparate groups. The first was highly influenced by the richest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. The group was called “Industrialists,” after the main assets of the oligarch – industrial enterprises in eastern Ukraine. The second was centered around Serhiy Liovochkin, former head of the Yanukovych Administration; Dmytro Firtash, the oligarch whose main interest is gas fields; and Yuriy Boiko, former Minister of Energy. This group was called “Gasmen.” The center of influence of the third, much smaller, group was the “Grey Cardinal,” Viktor Medvedchuk.
The great split
Vadym Rabynovych was the first backslider of the Opposition Bloc. Rabynovych was known to the public as the previous owner of the Kyiv football team Arsenal. He was also one of the founders of TV channel 1+1 whose current owner is oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi. In 2000, Rabynovych created the Media International Group which was comprised of several media groups in Ukraine, Russia, and Israel.
Rabynovych’s Soviet background has many blemishes. He was arrested twice for large scale embezzlement of state funds. Another black mark was in 1999, when the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) prohibited him from entering Ukraine for five years. He was deemed to be damaging the Ukrainian economy. Rabynovych insisted the ban was unjust and stemmed from a conflict with then-secretary of the State Security and Defence Council. However, after clarification with the Security Service the incident was over. In two months he returned to Ukraine.
In 2017, the media disclosed that Rabynovych had Israeli citizenship. By that time, he was already an MP. Ukrainian law does not recognize dual citizenship, and states that voluntarily receiving the citizenship of another country is a reason for losing the Ukrainian one. Last but not least, a person who has citizenship of another country can’t become a state official and if an official gains another passport, he or she has to be dismissed.
During the 2014 Presidential Election in Ukraine, Rabynovych had 2.25% of votes. During the Parliamentary Elections later that year, his party, All-Ukrainian Union Center, joined the Opposition Bloc. Thus, Rabynovych entered Parliament under the number four of the Opposition Bloc party list.
However, two years later he announced that he would leave the party because it did not behave as a true opposition. Since then, he has promoted the brand of his own party, Opposition Platform – For Life (henceforth referred to as Opposition Platform). However, officially, Rabynovych continues to carry the title Opposition Bloc MP, so as not to confuse his title on the original voting list and risk losing his mandate.
As is typical for Ukrainian politics, Rabynovych had gradually gained popularity through his media assets. In particular, through the TV information channel he founded, NewsOne.
In summer 2018, the pro-Russian organization Ukrainian Choice (Ukrayinsky Vybir) of Medvedchuk, who was not yet an MP, supplemented the Opposition Platform. According to their first-quarter report this year, Medvedchuk is listed as the main sponsor of the Opposition Platform.
At the end of 2018, on the eve of the Presidential Election, the divisions within the Opposition Bloc were further aggravated when Boiko and Liovochkin also joined the Opposition Platform. As a result, the two were excluded from their factions in Parliament. However, they remain the Opposition Bloc party MPs.
The union of the Opposition Bloc and the Opposition Platform was anticipated prior to the 2019 Parliamentary Elections. However, it did not happen. On voting ballots, the two parties will be placed under different numbers.
Same meaning, different ratings
Both the Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc espouse the same principles. Both do not recognize Russia as an aggressor. Both have a platform that is pro-Russian. Both promise peace in Donbas under any circumstances – notwithstanding that the result might force Ukraine’s capitulation to Russia.
In addition, the Opposition Platform’s program stands for non-aligned status for Ukraine, rejecting Euro-Atlantic integration; restoring trade with Russia; expanding the territorial region that requires the use of the Russian language; and other pro-Russian policies.
The Opposition Bloc, in their turn, defines their program as one “directed at the cancelation of discriminative laws and reforms, unification of the country, protection of national minorities,” which in fact means rolling back all the changes made in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution.
The policies of both these parties look like a Hit Parade of pro-Russian politicians from the Yanukovych regime. The Top Five list of the Opposition Platform includes Boiko, Rabynovych, Liovichkin, Medvedchuk, and Natalia Korolevska, Minister of Social Policy during the Yanukovych presidency and a current Opposition Bloc MP.
In summer 2019, the Opposition Bloc united with the party Trust the Actions (Doviriay Spravam) which included two mayors with notoriously tainted reputations: Hennadiy Trukhanov (Odesa) and Hennadiy Kernes (Kharkiv).
The party Rebirth (Vidrodzhennia) – initially a faction in the current parliament – consisted mostly of members of the former Party of Regions; members of the Party of Peace and Development (created after the split in the Opposition Bloc); and members of the party Nashi (Ours) of Yevhen Muraiev. Muraiev is particularly known for his Ukrainophobic stance. Today, he heads the party list of the Opposition Bloc.
Under other circumstances, the union would have been possible. However, such a strong advantage by the Opposition Platform clearly makes them talk as the party of force – which is not acceptable to the Opposition Bloc.
Viktor Taran, head of the Kyiv Centre for Political Studies and Analysis Eidos, explained to Deutsche Welle (DW) the reason the Opposition Bloc has low ratings. He pointed out that most of the party’s champions, who had mainly relied upon support in eastern and southern Ukraine, have shifted their interest to the Opposition Platform. Not inconsequential is the much greater media reach held by Opposition Platform.
Media influence converts into votes
In effect, both these political forces have powerful media resources. Moreover, up until recently, they promoted the same people. However, after the split, the preferences changed as well.
The media of the Opposition Bloc. The main media asset of Akhmetov is the media group Ukrayina. It is made up of more than 20 media outlets, including one of the most popular channels nationwide – Ukrayina. However, Akhmetov, who stands behind the Opposition Bloc, decided not to bet his media assets. According to experts, the oligarch has placed his hopes on the candidates running at single-mandate constituencies where his enterprises are located.
The media of the Opposition Platform. The media empire of Rabynovych-Medvedchuk has become even more powerful in the last months. In addition to owning channel 112 and NewsOne, Taras Kosak, an MP associated with Medvedchuk has purchased the nationwide ZIK channel.
According to the Industrial Television Committee, in May the combined ZIK, 112, and NewsOne share of the viewing public was close to 3% among the urban population aged 18-54. Compared to the market leaders, these figures are relatively low. But only at first glance. The three channels exclusively broadcast political and news content, with no entertainment at all. According to Tetiana Popova, an authority in the field, 70% of top political talk shows are hosted by the three Medvedchuk-related channels. The three also account for 20% of the top news programs.
Popova indicates that 45% of the top information programs in Ukraine are broadcast by the three channels. This constitutes a major segment of the viewing public, especially when considering that 14% of people get the news primarily from TV.
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Recently, rumors have circulated that Medvedchuk has acquired a majority share in another nationwide channel, the popular Inter, whose ratings have, however, dropped in the last years. His press office has refuted the claim.
Currently, Inter belongs to oligarchs Dmytro Firtash (80%) and Serhiy Liovochkin (20%). Even without Medvedchuk’s purchase, the reputation of Inter has already been spoiled.
Inter’s coverage of Euromaidan had far more in common with Russian media than with actual ground-level events. The broadcaster either ignored the protests altogether or manipulated them. They attempted to present Euromaidan protests on New Year’s Eve as ordinary celebrators. Even worse, they gave no air time to the concerns of protestors, instead clearly slanting the news in favor of the Yanukovych government.
During the 2019 Presidential Election, Inter actively promoted Yuriy Boiko, who campaigned for Opposition Platform. They continue to report malicious content arising from pro-Russian propaganda.
For example, in 2018 the National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting issued a steep fine to the channel for hate speech. On 9 May, marked as Victory Day in the post-Soviet area, the presenters mentioned that 8 million Ukrainians died from the hands of fascists during World War II. After, the presenters expressed outrage that “fascists” are honored in Ukraine nowadays, reiterating a long-lived Soviet myth equating the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which fought both against the Soviets and Nazi Germany to “fascists.” The fine amounted to more than $157,000 – equal to 25% of their licensing fee. Nevertheless, in July 2019, the not-yet-reformed Administrative Kyiv District Court canceled the decision.
Noteworthy is the fact that both the Opposition Platform and the Opposition Bloc accused one another of cooperating with former president Petro Poroshenko. Officially, both parties had opposed him, however, their representatives accused each other of lies and treason in this regard.
Recently, former journalist and MP Serhiy Leshchenko also credited Medvedchuk’s political comeback to Poroshenko. According to Leshchenko, Medvedchuk’s assets suddenly started increasing and his business partners suspiciously gained control of the country’s diesel pipeline. The pipeline carries every second litre of diesel fuel from Russia to Ukraine, in effect increasing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia. Lescheenko said that Poroshenko was not helping Medvedchuk for free.