Russia brings out Yanukovych to push the Kremlin line on Ukraine’s elections
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appeared at a press conference on 6 February in the Moscow offices of the state-controlled ‘Russia Today’ agency. It was not the first such event since he fled to Russia after the bloodshed on Maidan and as on previous occasions, his message seemed closely coordinated with that coming out of the Kremlin. This time the performance appeared aimed at trying to influence the Ukrainian presidential elections at the end of March.
The press conference came two weeks after Yanukovych was convicted, in absentia, by the Obolon District Court in Kyiv of state treason and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment. There are several reasons for concern about that court trial due to flaws in the law enabling trial by absentia and some other details, however Yanukovych’s attempts to present himself as the victim of political persecution were less than convincing. He could probably feel confident that he would not be asked what you should call appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Ukraine if not treason. Nonetheless, his account of the events five years ago was heavily edited and only likely to convince Russians who had been hearing the same narrative about a state coup, etc., from Russian state television.
His claim that the political pressure allegedly brought to bear on the court in Kyiv was “unprecedented” was a particularly memorable moment from an ex-President in hiding who had imprisoned his main rival and several of her associates.
Perhaps the only unexpected moment in the event came with Yanukovych’s assertion that Interpol has not issued a Red Notice on him and that he can, allegedly, travel where he wants. Considering that Interpol has placed at least one young Ukrainian – the friend of abducted student Pavlo Hryb - on its list despite very strong grounds for believing the case to be politically motivated, it is rather baffling that it has refused in the case of Yanukovych, citing fears that his prosecution could be political. Neither he, nor Putin’s press secretary, were willing to explain what his status is in Russia. Russia is known to have given several Berkut special force officers wanted for crimes against Maidan Russian citizenship, as well, reported, as some of the high-ranking people close to Yanukovych, like Vitaly Zakharchenko, the former Interior Minister.
Yanukovych had not given one of these ‘press conferences’ for a year, and, like the previous ones, it had been hyped up in advance. In fact, most of it repeated the themes that Yanukovych – and the Kremlin – have repeated before about Maidan, the supposed ‘coup d’état ‘ in Kyiv, Donbas, etc. There was nothing new about Crimea either, with its “loss” attributed to the Ukrainian authorities having divided the country. Looking heavily made up, Yanukovych came out with some pronouncements that bore absolutely no scrutiny. One was the assertions that his “lawyers have passed documents to the investigative bodies to start an investigation, who was really to blame for the loss of Ukraine. The specific culprits: who violated the Constitution of Ukraine and carried out a military coup in Ukraine?”
In short, almost exactly the refrain from the Kremlin, even to the cynical assertion that it was Maidan activists who gunned down Maidan activists.
The events around the creation of a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church cane well after Yanukovych’s previous press conference, but here too there were no surprises, with Yanukovych repeating Putin’s line about this supposedly being the Ukrainian state’s ‘interference’ in religious matters.
The key difference to previous press conferences was the constant reference to the coming presidential elections. President Petro Poroshenko, Yanukovych claimed, cannot possibly win through fair elections, so if he does win, this will mean that the elections were rigged. One might think that Yanukovych, more than anyone, should know about rigged elections, however UNIAN’s Moscow correspondent Roman Tsymbalyuk reports that even here Yanukovych was simply parroting the prevailing Russian narrative.
Yanukovych asserted that Ukraine should allow polling stations in occupied Crimea and Russia, claiming that it was fear of votes against those now in power in Ukraine that made them refuse to do so. While there certainly are arguments on both sides, at least with respect to Crimea, the recent Russian ‘elections’ illegally held there, and the methods used to force people to take part make it difficult to understand how the Ukrainian Central Election Commission could prevent mass election fraud.
Moscow is not concealing how much it wants Poroshenko out. What active measures it may take to support another presidential candidate and to generally influence the outcome, first of the presidential, then the parliamentary elections in Ukraine should be the subject of very close scrutiny over the next months. Putin effectively spelled out one extremely negative method soon after Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian naval boats near Crimea and the seizure of 24 Ukrainian POWs on 25 November 2018. Explaining why he was refusing to speak with Poroshenko about the situation and the men taken prisoner, Putin said that he did not want “to take part in Poroshenko’s election campaign”. It seems likely that this is why there has been no movement for so long on exchanges of POWs and civilian hostages in occupied Donbas, or of political prisoners held in occupied Crimea and Russia.