Sergii Leshchenko: Without TV channels, Viktor Medvedchuk is toothless
Viktor Medvedchuk is the most sinister figure in Ukrainian politics.
In Soviet times, he was a state-appointed lawyer for dissidents, including Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus. His clients ended up with prison sentences. In 2004, Medvedchuk announced that pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko would never become president. Soon, Yushchenko was nearly killed by a mysterious dioxin poisoning that occurred at the summer house of a security service general from Medvedchuk’s circle.
About 20 years ago, Medvedchuk met Vladimir Putin, who at the time had just been elected as Russia’s president. They became close: Putin is the godfather for Medvedchuk’s daughter. Relations with the Kremlin made Medvedchuk an omnipotent figure. For many years, Ukrainian politicians seeking political heights had to be vetted by the Kremlin. And Medvedchuk was the one who could get them the Kremlin’s approval. In particular, Yulia Tymoshenko involved Medvedchuk when she sought to close criminal cases against her in Russia, and when she was holding gas talks with Russia as Ukraine’s prime minister.
On the eve of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s escape to Russia, during the last bloody days of the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, Yanukovych talked with Medvedchuk on the phone a lot. Later, the U.S. Treasury called him “a liaison between Yanukovych and Putin” and sanctioned him for violating Ukrainian sovereignty.
Despite his hypertoxic status, few Ukrainian politicians dared to openly confront Medvedchuk. Three TV channels, the second-largest faction in parliament, a private security agency, one of the world’s largest boats, a private jet, and access to Putin – all of that made him look untouchable. And the systematic propaganda of the TV channels formally owned by his ally Taras Kozak worked well. In the latest rankings, the pro-Russian party led by Medvedchuk, Opposition Platform – For Life, began to emerge as a leading party.
That is why, when President Volodymyr Zelensky imposed the sanctions on channels 112, NewsOne, and ZIK and their legal owner Taras Kozak on Feb. 2, it took many by surprise.
After all, such a decision is not only a blow to the very heart of pro-Russian propaganda. This undermined all plans for Medvedchuk’s revenge and his plan to make Ukraine do a geopolitical U-turn and go right back into Russia’s arms.
Zelensky’s decision will shift the balance of political powers.
First, without TV channels, Medvedchuk is a crocodile whose teeth are torn out, scary only by appearance. He is not ready to surrender his positions, but he is also not ready to act boldly to fight for his influence. Complicating the situation for him is the fact that Zelensky picked the right moment as Putin is distracted by mass protests in Russia and mounting international criticism over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The sanctions against Kozak and the shutdown of the TV stations came as a real surprise for Medvedchuk, and in the first days after it happened, he did not think of anything better than to continue broadcasting on YouTube. And this reminds us that Medvedchuk’s broadcasting should be banned on this platform as well. The Ministry of Culture and Information of Ukraine has already sent an appeal to YouTube.
Secondly, Zelensky’s order to shut down Medvedchuk’s TV channels changes the balance of power within the 44-member Opposition Platform – For Life party, where Putin’s group led by Medvedchuk competes with the gas lobby group, led by Serhiy Lyovochkin and Yuriy Boyko.
Boyko has a higher personal rating than Medvedchuk. He also has influence on the Inter TV channel, which is owned by his partner Dmytro Firtash, who has for years successfully fought extradition to the U.S. in Austria to stand trial on corruption charges that he denies.
And Boyko has ambitions to run for president, with a high chance of reaching the second round. To quell Boyko’s appetites for independent play, Medvedchuk began ordering opinion polls about whom Ukrainian want to see president, where his candidacy is also proposed. In this way, he tries to tie Boyko to himself – the numbers should show that if Medvedchuk runs separately, he takes some of Boyko’s votes, and Boyko will not make it to the second round.
And, by the way, the ban on Medvedchuk’s channels benefits the Boyko-Lyovochkin’s television group as their audience might grow. Representatives of billionaire oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s TV channels also expressed solidarity with Medvedchuk’s staff and offered them employment.
Blow to Poroshenko
Finally, Zelensky’s sanctions against Medvedchuk’s TV channels were a serious blow to Petro Poroshenko’s electoral core.
For years, Poroshenko was saying that he could not impose sanctions on Medvedchuk’s channels, despite the expectations of his supporters.
Zelensky did so.
This started in 2018 when Medvedchuk started buying channels, and their broadcasting course underwent irreversible changes.
I experienced it myself when one day I was blacklisted on the ZIK channel, even though for many years I was a regular commentator and participated in dozens of shows. The ban on my presence was issued with the arrival of Medvedchuk’s management, with whom I have been in litigation for many years. He challenges my revelations that it was Poroshenko who created greenhouse conditions for the businesses of Medvedchuk-related companies. In particular, many of Medvedchuk’s competitors among liquified natural gas importers were killed by sanctions imposed by the Security Service of Ukraine, SBU. And the Anti-Monopoly Committee, controlled by then-President Poroshenko, has allowed Medvedchuk’s structures to take control of the diesel import pipeline and the Rosneft gas station network.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that Poroshenko didn’t go to war with Medvedchuk’s television empire. He chose to not impose sanctions despite a request of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, in October 2018. And the National Television Council, headed by Poroshenko’s ally, didn’t revoke the licenses of the channels, despite numerous violations.
On the contrary, Poroshenko apparently cut a deal with them: 112 and NewsOne were not banned, and these channels promoted Poroshenko during the 2019 presidential election.
By imposing sanctions on Medvedchuk’s channels, Zelensky not only met the demands of many pro-European forces. He showed the weakness of Poroshenko’s position, who was always looking for arguments as to why the propaganda channels couldn’t be blocked. Now it turned out that it can be done if there’s a political will.
Sanctions also undermine Zelensky’s image as a pro-Russian politician, which Poroshenko diligently created for him. With one decision, Zelensky shuffled the cards.
The procedure of shutting down the channels by imposing sanctions provoked a discussion among Ukrainian lawyers. Medvedchuk’s and Poroshenko’s allies insist that sanctions can be imposed only on foreign entities. This is a false statement because more than 100 people who found themselves under personal sanctions under Poroshenko are citizens of Ukraine, and the decree on their punishment indicates their Ukrainian passports.
Poroshenko, having suffered a reputational blow from Zelensky, is trying to make up for lost time. He insists that once the sanctions are imposed on Taras Kozak’s financing of terrorism, the lawmaker should be given a notice of suspicion and a public trial should follow.
In fact, Poroshenko is exchanging terms. After all, sanctions are a reaction to the threat against Ukraine, while the beginning of criminal proceedings is a reaction to the violation of the law of Ukraine.
Here are the arguments of human rights activist Volodymyr Yavorsky, a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. He emphasizes that sanctions are applied not to bring a particular person to criminal responsibility, but to stop threats to national security. And sanctions can be applied regardless of whether someone is eventually found guilty and convicted.
“When the country you are at war with actually has a network of its media, where it systematically carries out information attacks, sanctions are an adequate move. It is obvious to everyone that Taras Kozak could not buy these channels himself and he is a fictitious person for holding media assets. From a legal standpoint, you will not prove anything. In such cases, sanctions are applied, because the threat to national security is obvious. And as a result of their introduction, they do not confiscate property, but only freeze it,” Yavorsky wrote on Facebook. But, in fact, such a “freeze” completely paralyzes Medvedchuk.
There is another telltale sign that shows how the behind-the-scenes web of Ukrainian politics is woven by pro-Russian forces. Medvedchuk tried to appeal to the Constitutional Court against the 2018 decision of the parliament which called for sanctions on his TV channels. This decision was never implemented by Poroshenko, but was now used by Zelensky as a pretext for sanctions.
Medvedchuk’s goal was to declare the entire act of parliament as illegal and to remove risks. However, the then chairman of the Constitutional Court, Stanislav Shevchuk, blocked the opening of court proceedings, thus disrupting Medvedchuk’s plans. And, perhaps, it was then that it was decided to carry out a coup in the Constitutional Court and bring Oleksandr Tupytsky to power. He is the same one who in the fall of 2020 was engaged in the destruction of anti-corruption gains at the request of Medvedchuk and his associates.
All this shows that the sanctions imposed on Medvedchuk’s channels are not just a way to stop the daily flow of Russian propaganda. This is an attempt by Ukrainian democracy to defend itself, just as American democracy was defended in January from Donald Trump’s attempts to usurp power.
The struggle for democracy continues – both in the U.S. and Ukraine.
Sergii Leshchenko is a Kyiv Post columnist, investigative journalist, and former member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.