Putin’s Man in Ukraine Is Making Gains Even as War Grinds On

(Bloomberg) - Kremlin-friendly political forces are making headway in Ukraine, and their leader says the time is right for more gains.
The advance may surprise those who watched demonstrators realign the country - a common battlefield between Russia and the West since the collapse of communism - towards Europe six years ago. The revolution prompted President Vladimir Putin to annex the Crimea from his neighbor and foment the war on the border of the two former allies that is rumbling today.
But as Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy has become increasingly engrossed in conflict against the murky political system he has banned, there is a window to tap into the growing disenchantment. The popularity of the party's Opposition Platform - For Life, which supports closer ties with Russia, is the highest since the demonstrators overthrew Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 as it cemented support among pro-Russian voters.
"There is no trust in Zelenskiy or his party," said Viktor Medvedchuk, chairman of the opposition platform - For Life. Putin, the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter, has supported him for years as his leading actor in Ukraine
"I openly say that we should go the same way with Russia, that we must do everything we can to restore relations," said the 66-year-old tycoon in an interview. "People believe that more and more."
Medvedchuk, sanctioned by the United States for undermining Ukraine's sovereignty, addressed the Donbass conflict, in which more than 13,000 people were killed. Zelenskiy had failed to fulfill the peace pledges that helped the then political newcomer to a landslide election victory in 2019, he said.
Opposition Platform - For Life supports constitutional amendments that give the breakaway region more autonomy, which could counter Ukraine's goals of integration into the European Union and NATO - a move that would likely result in suicide for Zelenskiy.
Despite rising polls and the presidential slump due to its popularity once surpassed Putin's in Russia, Medvedchuk's party only controls about 10% of the parliamentary seats and stands little chance of ever being accepted into a national government. This pursuit was made more difficult by the loss of Crimea, where the inhabitants mostly lived in Russia.
"There is potential for further increase in support, but it is limited to 25% of the electorate - those nostalgic for the Soviet Union and those who want to live in Russia," said Andriy Bychenko, head of the sociology department at the Razumkov center in Kiew.
Reason for election
The party can still be useful to the Kremlin. In fact, it has teamed up with oligarchs in parliament to crack down on reformist laws required to maintain a $ 5 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
Medvedchuk, meanwhile, enjoys frequent airtime on television channels officially owned by his friends and co-workers. He often broadcasts in conversation with Putin, whom he met three times this year. Benefiting from the pandemic, he was shown that he had received Russia's coronavirus vaccine, which Ukraine refuses to buy, while vacationing in Crimea in August - before trials established the safety and effectiveness of the shot.
Russian influence through such channels has raised red flags in Ukraine. But Zelenskiy, a former TV comic that was broadcast on a controversial billionaire TV station, has yet to enforce threats of media ownership crackdown.
For now, Medvedchuk basks in his party's growing popularity while recognizing its limited scope.
"There are reasons for early elections that better reflect people's interest," he said, admitting that it would be very difficult to get an early vote.
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