Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Prince Of Darkness' Returns

KIEV, Ukraine -- He was the “grey cardinal” of ex-President Leonid Kuchma’s court, dubbed Ukraine’s “prince of darkness” by his legions of critics. In many people’s eyes, he personified the cronyism and corruption that the Orange Revolution was directed against.

Viktor Medvedchuk

And now, on the fourth anniversary of the protests that overturned the rigged election results, Victor Medvedchuk is making his way back into Ukrainian politics.

After months of accusations from President Victor Yushchenko’s administration that Medvedchuk is advising Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Kuchma’s former chief of staff was reappointed to the Supreme Council of Justice, which oversees the nation’s judicial system. But in a reminder of the secrecy in which he used to operate, his work is shrouded in mystery.

“He has plans to return to public politics,” said Mykhailo Illarionov, head of Medvedchuk’s press service. “As head of the Independent Center of Legal Initiatives and Expertise, he advises a number of top politicians.”

Back to the future

Medvedchuk was the target of much of the opposition’s anger during the 2004 presidential elections. A leading oligarch, whose fortune Focus magazine this year placed at $460 million, he served as deputy speaker in parliament and is a former leader of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united). His reign as head of Kuchma’s administration from 2002 to 2004 saw increasingly authoritarian control from Bankova Street, which managed the media via Medvedchuk’s ownership or control of the three biggest television channels and temnyky, secret directives on how to spin the news.

Medvedchuk was allegedly the mastermind behind the failed attempt to fix the presidential election in favor of Victor Yanukovych, though no formal charges have ever been filed against him. After the election result was overturned, and Yushchenko became president, he faded away from frontline politics as his party lost deputies and support.

Vakhtang Kipiani, the journalist who exposed the temnyky system of media control, said Medvedchuk’s return means that Ukraine is undergoing a systemic crisis – not only in politics, but also in morality.

“Medvedchuk was one of the reasons people took to Maidan. He was the iron-fisted but effective architect of a system built on secrecy and prohibition. His return means that the current system still needs people like him,” Kipiani said, adding that Medvedchuk’s return to public politics will cause Ukrainians to grow even more cynical about the country’s government.

Prince of Darkness?

Medvedchuk’s name has cropped up increasingly this year in connection with Tymoshenko, who memorably asked him in 2002, “Why do you not love Ukraine?” and in 2004 accused him of “Stalinist repressions.” On March 27, the prime minister announced in televised comments that she was ready to shake hands with Medvedchuk if he could organize a natural gas agreement with Russia that was beneficial to Ukraine. Medvedchuk maintains very close relations with the Kremlin: His daughter’s godparents are Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana.

In an interview with Novynar magazine in April, Leonid Kravchuk, former president and leader of the SDPU(u), said the 2007 round of gas negotiations between Tymoshenko and Gazprom were aided by Medvedchuk.

The clearest sign yet that Medvedchuk is returning to a public role came on Nov. 5, when he was reinstated as a member of the High Council of Justice, after the Supreme Court rescinded his suspension.

The presidential administration accused the prime minster of secretly cooperating with Medvedchuk. “If working with Medvedchuk is so important to you, please take the decision to form a coalition with the Party of Regions and appoint Medvedchuk to any position. Just do it honestly, looking your voters in the eye,” Andriy Kyslynsky, deputy head of the president’s secretariat, told reporters on Nov. 6.

“Tymoshenko is helping to resurrect Medvedchuk,” said Dmytro Chobit, a former Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko deputy who has written books on Medvedchuk and Tymoshenko. He described how Medvedchuk had prepared a new constitution for Tymoshenko’s bloc – known by the BYuT acronym – and the Party of Regions that might have passed had Regions deputies not backed out in May.

For her part, Tymoshenko has carefully avoided comment on her relationship with Medvedchuk, pointing out that he has no official role. Her spokeswoman, Marina Soroka, told the Kyiv Post she does not know whether Medvedchuk is advising the prime minister.

In the shadows

It appears that Tymoshenko is not the only politician hoping to make use of the skills of Medvedchuk as a political fixer and legal expert, as well as his contacts at home and in Russia. “He meets politicians from all sides – including previous enemies,” said Taras Berezovets, director of the Kyiv-based Polittech political consulting firm. “He works with the Party of Regions, BYuT and Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense.”

In March, Nestor Shufrych, a close ally of Medvedchuk and his former deputy leader in the SDPU(u), now a deputy for the Party of Regions, claimed that Medvedchuk was working with the Party of Regions. Shufrych also said that Yushchenko had offered him the position of secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. At the time, both sides denied connections with Medvedchuk, saying that he was working with Tymoshenko.

But on Oct. 23, Party of Regions leader Yanukovych told reporters that his group was discussing mergers with a number of political parties, including the SDPU(u). Kommersant Ukraine reported that such a merger would guarantee former SDPU(u) leader Medvedchuk a spot on the upper part of the Regions’ election list, citing a source within the party. The source said the offer was on the condition that the SDPU(u) gave up its support of Tymoshenko.

Illarionov, the head of Medvedchuk’s press service, confirmed Medvedchuk’s involvement “as a lawyer and leading expert on state legal affairs” in preparing attempts led by Party of Regions deputies including Shufrych, to force a national referendum on NATO membership through the Constitutional Court. The idea of a referendum is Medvedchuk’s brainchild from 2005. The party then collected 4.5 million signatures for such a referendum that would also include questions whether Russian should be the second state language in Ukraine, and whether Ukraine should have a common economic space with Russia and Belarus. Local media reports that Medvedchuk’s Independent Center of Legal Initiatives and Expertise has recently filed several lawsuits against the compulsory dubbing of foreign films into Ukrainian, and the ban of some Russian TV channels from air that came into effect this month.

Having stepped down as leader of the SDPU(u) last year, it is unclear whether Medvedchuk is going to commit to a party, or continue his work behind the scenes. With most politicians denying connections with a man whose reputation took a beating in 2004, it remains as much a challenge as ever to find out what precise role he is playing and what his plans are. “He keeps a low profile,” said Berezovets, director of Polittech. “He prefers to do everything in the shadows.”

Illarionov said that Medvedchuk hadn’t spoken to the press for two years and would not comment for this article. Although he confirmed that Medvedchuk has contact with the Party of Regions and advises other politicians, he declined to “name names.” Igor Shurma, first deputy chairman of the SDPU(u) who was close to Medvedchuk, said he had no information about Medvedchuk’s future involvement in politics. “You will have to ask him about it,” he said. “All I will say is that it would be a good thing for the state.”

“As far as I know, Victor Vladimirovich [Medvedchuk] has political plans which do not presume membership in BYuT,” BYuT deputy and close Tymoshenko ally Andriy Portnov told Delo newspaper on Nov. 7. “Like it or not, there is no doubt that Medvedchuk’s role in the country’s development is considerable.”

Source: Kyiv Post

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