Treason trial against Kremlin ally is trip wire for president Zelensky

By persecuting tycoon, political leader and Putin pal Viktor Medvedchuk for treason the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is taking a big risk, says Todd Prince for RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Medvedchuk is one of the staunchest promotors of a pro-Russian political agenda in Ukraine. According to Zelenskiy he undermines state security, Putin speaks of a 'purge of the political field.' The trial can easily backfire.

zelensky medvedtsjoek collage liganetPresident Zelenskiy versus pro-Russian tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk (collage Liganet)

by Todd Prince

It may be the highest-profile trial in Ukraine since Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the presidency two years ago -- and possibly the most consequential since another major political court case roiled Ukrainian politics a decade ago.

But the treason trial of Viktor Medvedchuk is also shaping up to be a political, and legal, trip wire for Zelenskiy, who's struggling to clean up a notoriously corrupt judicial system, while also sidelining the powerful Russian interests; interests that, in some cases, have thwarted that effort, and undermined his administration.

The potentially explosive trial comes at a tough time for the comic-turned-president. His ratings are falling; the economy is suffering; and he is being pulled in opposite directions on reforms by powerful oligarch interests and the West. He is also failing at one of the key pledges of his election campaign -- to end the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine, now in its eighth year.

Medvedchuk, who heads a pro-Russian opposition party, is widely seen as the Kremlin's most prominent political ally in Kyiv and a thorn in Ukraine's side on those peace talks. His daughter's godfather is Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The 66-year-old lawmaker made his first appearance in a Kyiv courtroom on May 13, where a judge ordered him to house arrest pending the formal beginning of his trial in July, on charges that also included 'attempting to plunder the national wealth in Crimea', the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

A Kremlin spokesman said the trial was an internal matter for Ukraine; however, Moscow is watching closely. Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister, issued a statement calling the trial a 'witch-hunt' while Putin talked of 'anti-Russian' policy in Ukraine.

And Putin himself referred obliquely to the case, in comments on May 14, saying that 'right now there is obviously a purge of the political field'.

Medvedchuk's prosecution is like 'a ballistic missile', said Orysia Lutsevych, manager of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a London-based research organization. 'It's quite an escalatory decision against Russia. I'm sure it was not an easy decision.'

'It is a more strategic initiative to go after Russian proxy groups and Kremlin's influence inside Ukraine', she told RFE/RL.

While the trial is rankling Moscow -- and is seen by some analysts as a response to recent Russian hostility -- it also poses a risk for Zelenskiy's support in the West, analysts said, if legal norms are violated or if the trial is seen as a miscarriage of justice.

'Who is to say that Zelenskiy maintains control of the narrative once the prosecution begins?' William Pomeranz, the deputy director of the Washington-based Kennan Institute, told RFE/RL. 'To a country that espouses Western rule of law principles, what happens if [Medvedchuk] proves that this is illegal?'

Some European officials raised concerns in February when Ukraine seized television stations belonging to Medvedchuk’s ally and fellow lawmaker Taras Kozak, who is also accused of treason. Kozak is in hiding in Russia.

Problematic Past Trials

As he takes on Medvedchuk, Zelenskiy is also engaged in a critical legal battle to clean up the nation’s top court, the Constitutional Court, whom he accuses of undermining anti-graft reforms.

Ukraine's legal system is widely viewed as corrupt and under the influence of officials and tycoons, including Medvedchuk, whose party was behind last year’s effort to dismantle the graft reforms, sparking a constitutional crisis.

zelensky aan frontUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects troops in the Donbas (picture presidential administration)

'It is important that the indictment (against Medvedchuk) has strong evidence and the trial is fair and transparent', Lutsevych said. She asserted that the Kremlin was already trying to portray the process as politically motivated.

Popular discontent with corruption was a driver of the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests that culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, who supported stronger ties with Moscow.

Yanukovych's ouster infuriated the Kremlin, and led to the annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of war in eastern regions that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Three years prior to Yanukovych’s ouster, the judicial system was put under a harsh spotlight when Yanukovych's main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, was convicted for her role in negotiating natural gas deals with Russia.

She was sentenced to seven years in prison, and her jailing turned her into a political prisoner in the eyes of her supporters, and many in the West. Yanukovych turned to U.S. law firms, and the U.S. political strategists, to help whitewash the prosecution.

The Tymoshenko trial highlighted Ukraine’s regional split between west -- where ethnic Ukrainians are dominant -- and east -- where many ethnic Russians feel a stronger affinity for Moscow. Pomeranz said the Medvedchuk trial could do the same.

Zelenskiy 'is not appealing to the Russian-speaking population', he said. The Medvedchuk trial 'is going to cause further divisions'.

Tymoshenko was released from prison the day that Yanukovych fled Ukraine, on February 22, 2014.

Poroshenko Case

Yanukovych's successor, the billionaire confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko, was initially seen as a reformer, someone who could begin to uproot some of the persistent graft, in particular where the judiciary was concerned.

But European and U.S. officials soured on Poroshenko as he did little to improve the court system, and also protected prosecutors seen as ineffectual. That includes Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin, who later played a role in helping Republicans trying to tarnish the political future of Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who was elected president in 2020.

PoroshenkoFormer Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko in 2019, running on a platform of trying to clean up corruption, but also resolve the conflict with Russia.

Months later, however, Zelenskiy’s administration launched a criminal investigation against Poroshenko on a slew of charges including tax evasion.

Many Western officials and analysts disapproved of the investigations, warning they appeared to be politically motivated.

In March 2020, Zelenskiy moved to push out then-Prosecutor-General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who was highly respected in the West. Ryaboshapka claimed he was fired in part because he refused to prosecute Poroshenko on what he called flimsy charges.

The state's investigation into Poroshenko is continuing.

Ryaboshapka was replaced with Iryna Venedyktova, who on May 11 announced that Medvedchuk would be charged with high treason.

'Anti-Russia' Turn

In late January, amid sharply falling ratings, Zelenskiy’s administration took a sharp 'anti-Russian' policy turn, according to Maksim Samorukov, an analyst at Carnegie Moscow, as the administration began targeting Russian-leaning politicians and political figures.

Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party kicked out a lawmaker seen as pro-Russian after the United States imposed financial sanctions on him.

Then Zelenskiy shut down three television stations believed to belong to Medvedchuk. Not long after, Zelenskiy levied financial sanctions on Medvedchuk and his offices were raided by the Ukrainian Security Service earlier this week.

Zelenskiy 'promised to end corruption. He promised to do something about ending the war in the east, and he hasn't been able to really accomplish any of those objectives', Pomeranz said. 'I think that he decided that he could maybe have an easy victory by taking out Medvedchuk.'

The 'anti-Russian' shift also coincided with Biden, a staunch supporter of Ukraine when he was vice president, arriving at the White House in January.

Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, was ambivalent in his rhetoric toward Kyiv, though his administration did authorize the sale of scores of anti-tank missiles called Javelins to help Ukrainian forces battling Kremlin-backed separatists.

Who is Viktor Medvedchuk?

Medvedchuk, who chose Putin to be the godfather of his daughter, is one of the highest-ranking members of the Opposition Platform-For Life party. Its support largely comes from eastern and southern provinces where Russian-speakers  predominate, promotes closer economic and political ties with Moscow and is the second-largest party in the parliament.

Medvedchuk is one of Ukraine’s richest and most powerful figures and a longtime friend of Putin’s. His assets and bank accounts in Ukraine have been frozen. Medvedchuk has been under U.S. sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 for 'undermining Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions'. 

Ukraine's national-security council accused him of 'financing terrorism'. Zelenskiy’s administration claimed the tycoon is channeling money from his Russia-based refinery to the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Medvedchuk has denied the accusations, calling them 'nonsense'. 'It is just a provocation in order to first close the three TV stations, and then restrict me so that I either quit politics or leave the country,' he told the BBC. 

The case against Medvedchuk could also raise Zelenskiy's profile relative to Poroshenko, seen as his strongest rival, Lutsevych said.

After 2014, Medvedchuk was seen as 'untouchable', Lutsevych said, most likely because Poroshenko may have seen him as useful in negotiating a peace settlement with Putin.

'Poroshenko didn't want to escalate. And now it seems like Zelenskiy understood that he would get more benefits by going after Medvedchuk than by Medvedchuk's mediation services', she said.

'Powerful Interests'

In his first major foreign-policy speech on February 4, Biden criticized Russian aggression and reiterated Western support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

In the weeks afterward, Russia made a major, and highly public, deployment of forces and heavy weaponry to its borders with Ukraine, setting off alarm bells in Kyiv, and prompting a flurry of calls from Washington and other Western leaders.

The Kremlin has since pulled back some of the troops from the border.

During a visit to Kyiv on May 6, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled Zelenskiy's reforms efforts were under scrutiny.

'There are powerful interests lined up against reform and against anti-corruption efforts', Blinken said. 'Those include external forces like Russia but also internal forces like oligarchs and other powerful individuals who are pursuing their own narrow interests through illegitimate means at the expense of the interests of the Ukrainian people.'

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said it was unclear if the trial would result in a prison sentence for Medvedchuk. 
'I wouldn't bet the farm on it', Herbst told RFE/RL. 'But if anyone can be accused of treason, it is Medvedchuk.'

'Ukraine cannot be fully independent until it cuts these channels of influence from Russia', Herbst said. Zelenskiy is showing Russia he 'is not defenseless'.

This article first was published at RFE/RL.

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