It is no secret that Viktor Medvedchuk is a personal friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin. His daughter is Putin’s godchild. The former head of the administration of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma has been playing a special role in Ukrainian-Russian relations since the early 2000s.
Medvedchuk’s political positions always follow those of the Kremlin, and he has never publicly condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea. He was officially sanctioned by the United States in 2014 for threatening Ukraine’s peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
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One would think that Medvedchuk should have no place in Ukrainian politics today. But he is preparing to run for a seat in parliament next fall with the party For Life led by Vadim Rabinovich. He is also the subject of a public scandal surrounding his role in the 1980 trial of Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus, sentenced by the Soviet authorities to ten years in the Gulag, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
Hromadske explains Medvedchuk’s changing role in Ukrainian politics, the public outcry around his absence from the film “Stus,” and why we should be wary of Putin’s longtime friend serving in parliament.
Who is Medvedchuk?
Since Medvedchuk’s post in Kuchma’s presidential administration ended in 2005, he has taken to influencing Ukrainian politics in less direct ways. Medvedchuk became the director of an informal committee of Ukrainian oligarchs directing the course of Ukrainian politics in 2004, playing the role of mediator between the oligarchs and Putin, according to Mikhail Zygar, author of “All the Kremlin’s Men,” a book about Putin and his circle.
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When Yanukovych announced the strategic goal of signing an association agreement with the European Union in 2012, which most Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs supported, Medvedchuk changed gears. He formed the organization Ukrainian Choice, a political platform pushing for Ukraine to join the Eurasian Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus instead of orienting toward the E.U.
The pro-Russian politician found himself a new role as the war in the Donbas was heating up in 2014 – as an informal mediator between the new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Putin. In 2015, Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov was banned from entering Ukraine and the next year Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov was recalled, leaving Medvedchuk as the only person capable of negotiating between the leaders of the two countries. He told the BBC in an interview that he is essentially performing the function of an unofficial Russian ambassador to Ukraine.
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Poroshenko insists that Medvedchuk’s only role is in the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. Together with Iryna Herashchenko he has served as Ukraine's special representative for humanitarian affairs since 2015, responsible for negotiating prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas. After each successful exchange, the Russian president publicly emphasizes Medvedchuk’s role as a mediator in this process.
The main message of Medvedchuk’s announcement to enter parliamentary politics next year is that he shares For Life leader Rabinovich’s views on bringing peace to the Donbas and improving Ukraine’s relations with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A member of Medvedchuk’s team, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that Medvedchuk announced his return to official politics after the summit between Putin and U.S. president Donald Trump, during which the Russian president suggested holding a referendum to determine the status of Ukraine’s Donbas. Hromadske’s interlocutor added, “The status of the Donbas must be established in the Constitution, which the Ukrainian parliament can change.”
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As the parliamentary elections are still more than a year away, Medvedchuk’s present task is uniting Ukraine’s various “pro-Russian” political factions. In fall 2014, politicians battling for the former Party of Regions electorate – Yuriy Boyko, Mykhailo Dobkin, and Vadim Rabinovich – joined together to form the party Opposition Bloc.
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The new party’s alliances are split between two Ukrainian businessmen – Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov. Both rely on Russia for success in their respective enterprises. MPs tied to Medvedchuk and his organizations, especially Vadim Rabinovich, have acted as a kind of buffer between the supporters of the two oligarchs. In 2016, Rabinovich created the party For Life as an alternative to the Opposition Bloc. This July he called all the opposition parties to unite and choose a single candidate for president, and also to form a united party for parliamentary elections in the fall.
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Medvedchuk has stated in numerous interviews that he is a proponent of direct dialogue with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republis,” essentially recognizing them as legitimate parties for negotiation. He advocates for reestablishing economic cooperation with Russia and remains critical of Ukraine’s ambitions to join the E.U. He also supports rewriting the Constitution to create a legal basis for Ukraine’s federalization and shift to a parliamentary republic.
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The pro-Russian political camp that Medvedchuk is trying to unite has put forth the only alternative thus far to the plan of reintegrating the Donbas devised by Poroshenko and National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov. Echoing the Kremlin’s official position, it involves replacing the Russian military presence in the Donbas with a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
As Medvedchuk’s presence in politics grows, his absence from an upcoming film about Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus, who died in the Gulag in 1985, has also stirred public controversy. The historical thriller “Stus,” partly financed by the Ukrainian State Film Agency, is scheduled for release next February.
A key scene from the poet’s biography – his last trial in 1980 – was cut from the final version of the film. Stus, who had already spent time in the Gulag, was arrested again prior to the Moscow Olympics and accused of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” His defense lawyer – a procedural formality in the Soviet Union – was recent law graduate Viktor Medvedchuk.'
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An actor who remembered the scene from casting announced on Facebook in August that it – along with any mention of Medvedchuk – had been removed from the film after “someone from Medvedchuk’s administration called the producers” and pressured them to remove it.
The news was shared widely and criticized by many cultural figures, including writers Oksana Zabuzhko and Yuriy Vynnychuk. It also led Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman to release a statement charging the Ministry of Culture and State Film Agency to “do everything possible to tell the story of … Stus – honestly, truthfully, completely and without distortion.”
The film’s producer Artem Denysov confirmed to Hromadske that the scenes involving Medvedchuk were never shot. Both he and director Roman Brovko said they were cut to keep the film a reasonable length.
However, Brovko admitted that the film team had concerns that including the court trial scene with Medvedchuk could affect the film’s chances for being screened and distributed by mainstream Ukrainian companies.
“I have a feeling that if Medvedchuk was present as a character, then maybe even some of the largest film distributors in Ukraine would not want to take this film,” Brovko said in an interview with RFE/RL last month. “Nobody says anything outright, no one says it’s forbidden, but there is a certain cautiousness.”
In fact, Medvedchuk’s lawyer, Ihor Kyrylenko, has released a statement on the Ukrainian Choice website, which states that in the case that “Stus” is released portraying Medvedchuk untruthfully, he maintains the right to respond with legal action aimed at preventing the film’s demonstration. The statement also suggests that the scandal surrounding the omission of the court scene from the film, citing Groysman’s public comment, is politically motivated.
The entire film crew announced last week on the film’s Facebook page that in response to popular demand they will film the missing scenes involving Medvedchuk and the final trial of dissident poet Stus. Acknowledging the large number of requests from the public to put the scene back, they stated, “We recognize that by removing the scene from the final draft of the script our approach to its analysis and significance for society was not responsible enough.”
“We understand that the film will be released at the height of the [presidential] election campaign and would not like to make the memory of a great person the instrument of political influence and arguments,” the filmmakers added.
/By Maksym Kamenev and Roman Budanov
/Translated and adapted by Larissa Babij