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Bohdan Nahaylo: Ukraine’s Parliamentary Election and the Revenge Factor
18 July, 2019
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Editor's Note: The following is an opinion article by British journalist Bohdan Nahaylo. The views and opinions expressed in it are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.

On July 21 Ukrainians will vote in a parliamentary election brought forward from October after the landslide victory of political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the recent presidential election.

Given the exceptionally high level of support that the new president and his new political party – Sluha narodu, or Servant of the People – continue to enjoy, with 40% or more of the voters saying they will back them, the desire for change and a break with the past is clearly uppermost in the minds of the majority of the diverse electorate.

But there is a dark cloud on the horizon that could upset their hopes.  Like the recent presidential election, the present campaign has been acrimonious and divisive.  The quest for revenge has been poisoning the atmosphere and obscuring the need for unity, compromise and cooperation for the good of the country.

This preoccupation with settling scores and damaging the prospects of political opponents is threatening to get out of hand.  At this critical time of political reconfiguration taking place against the background of continuing serious external and internal challenges, the exacerbation of internal divisions is the last thing Ukraine needs.

Until recently, the victors in the Revolution of Dignity, both on the official and unofficial levels, viewed the pro-Russian forces associated with the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, as the main revanchist element. They remained opposed to Ukraine’s European orientation and Ukrainianization policies.

But the political setback they suffered in 2014, the level of revulsion and patriotism generated by Russia’s aggression, and the adaptation of the leading oligarchs to the the post-Maidan conditions left them much weakened and virtually marginalized.  Their parliamentary faction – the Opposition Bloc – split in 2018 and also saw their support further eroded by the unexpected arrival on the political scene of Zelenskyy.

Consequently, the remnants of the former Party of the Region were unable to mount a serious challenge in the presidential election.  Even with the recent political reemergence of the notorious pro-Russian politician and business Viktor Medvechuk as one of the leaders of the “Opposition Platform – For Life”, the new flagship of the revanchist leftovers, their prospects in the parliamentary election are limited. 

Although “For Life” is expected to obtain around 12% of the votes and come second after “Servant of the People”, at present it is not as serious a threat as some of their opponents claim.

Paradoxically, another political force is seeking revenge, but for different reasons.  This is former president Petro Poroshenko and his supporters who after his humiliating defeat hastily created their own “European Solidarity” party. 

As during the final stages of the presidential campaign, he and his supporters continue to present themselves as “true” Ukrainians defending Ukraine and “patriotic” values, and depict the majority of voters who back Zelenskyy as second-rate Ukrainians, misguided at best, but in all probability, “unpatriotic.”

Poroshenko and his party seem to have no wish to reconcile themselves to Zelenskyy’s victory and what it represents.  Their supporters in the Ukrainian parliament openly blocked the Zelenskyy’s new political appointments and efforts to have important laws adopted that would have opened the way forward.

This has not only held up change but also deepened divisions.  Moreover, Poroshenko’s reluctance to accept defeat gracefully and his spoiling tactics are damaging his own party’s chances. Latest opinion polls suggest that it is unlikely to get even 10% of the votes, which will mean that it will finish at best in third or fourth place, behind even the “For Life” party.   

There is a further revanchist factor - Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch from Dnipro with whom Zelenskyy has been associated through business dealings, mainly the broadcasting of his TV products on the tycoon’s 1+1 channel.  Whatever their business and other links in the past, and despite claims from his detractors that he is Kolomoisky’s puppet, Zelenskyy has kept the oligarch at arm’s length and, it seems, antagonized him. Kolomoisky has already made various statements about the challenges facing Ukraine that have hardly served Zelenskyy’s cause and can only be interpreted as provocative and vindictive.

And finally, there is Zelenskyy himself.  While seemingly focused on the future and delivering the change that his supporters await, he himself has begun to sound a revanchist note.  Frustrated by the blocking tactics of Poroshenko’s supporters in the outgoing parliament, he has served notice that he does not intend to forget and forgive.  Before he, he has declared his determination to bring corrupt officials to account. More recently he has introduced a bill calling for the banning from public office of all officials, deputies and judges from the time of the Poroshenko administration. 

Whether this is simply pre-election posturing, or meant in all seriousness, remains to be seen.  Whatever the case, in Ukraine’s current situation political revenge is likely to be destructive rather than sweet.