President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who began to be written off against the background of falling ratings, unexpectedly managed to reorganize and launch a counteroffensive – this time on the national-patriotic field. With the help of NSDC sanctions, he dealt several tangible blows to the business and media empire of Viktor Medvedchuk, close to the Kremlin, while challenging Petro Poroshenko as the main patriot of Ukrainian politics.
However, it is too early to say that Zelensky’s turn to the right was a success – he risks losing the trust of former voters without gaining popularity among new ones. A striking example of the fact that the president is not welcomed with open arms on the national-patriotic flank is the protest rallies in support of the convicted right-wing activist Sergei Sternenko. And the confrontation with opponents and the radical street further increases Zelensky’s dependence on the permanent head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov.
Sternenko and the pogrom: After the victory of Euromaidan, nationalist activists became an influential force in Ukrainian politics. Having legitimized themselves as the shock troops of the revolution and volunteers in the war in Donbass, they sought to control street politics and joined various protest movements. Some did not disdain and criminals.
The previous government flirted with them, trying to attract them to various near-government structures. The current one is rather afraid of them and dreams of restraining them. Radicals pay Zelensky with the same coin. The new president was suspected of a willingness to capitulate to Moscow and a desire to curtail the course of Ukrainization and decommunization. These suspicions were generally not justified, but this did not add to his popularity among radicals. The persecution of popular nationalist activists has become an insurmountable watershed.
At first, a storm of protests was caused by the arrest of several ATO volunteers on suspicion of plotting the assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet. Then Sergei Sternenko, a 26-year-old activist from Odessa, a former member of the Right Sector (banned in Russia), became a landmark political prisoner for the right. He played an active role in the local Euromaidan, and then participated in “popular lustrations” and fought against the abuse of Odessa bosses, including the mayor of the city Gennady Trukhanov. The methods of struggle were rather contradictory – several criminal cases were opened against the radical activist.
In late February, the Primorsky Court of Odessa sentenced Sternenko to seven years in prison on charges of kidnapping a pro-Russian activist. Another case – the murder of 28-year-old Ivan Kuznetsov, who attacked him – is still pending in the same court. In relation to Sternenko, public opinion was split. His supporters are convinced that the cases were fabricated by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, with the participation of an odious lawyer from Yanukovych’s entourage, Andrey Portnov, who does not hide that his goal is revenge on all Maidan activists. Opponents, on the contrary, believe that the Sternenko case is an attempt to restore order in the country, retribution to the street shouts who went too far under the previous government. According to a poll by the Razumkov Center, 33.9% consider the sentence to the Maidan activist fair, 33.7% – politically motivated. During and after the trial, Sternenko’s supporters staged a series of protests that culminated in an attack on the president’s office. Taking advantage of the inaction of the police, the radicals smashed windows and painted the building on Bankova Street, offensive to the president.
Outwardly dissimilar forces stood up to defend Sternenko. On the one hand, these are the national radicals who have left under the wing of the “Azov movement”, which is believed to be patronized by the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Avakov. On the other hand, there are representatives of the liberal human rights community. For them, this is a high-profile case – an opportunity to push through the reform of the judicial system, which Western allies have long demanded from Zelensky. So far, this is only a situational union, but a new national-liberal project may well emerge from it , appealing to the legacy of Euromaidan.
Sternenko himself could claim leadership in it. Kiev interlocutors emphasize that he went through a great evolution from a street hooligan to a nationwide politician, in any case, this is the image that liberal media form . A KIIS poll shows that Sternenko’s trust rating is already almost 8% – quite enough to start a political career.
The emerging personality cult of political prisoner # 1 fits well into the process of finding a new leader for the “young patriots”. This niche turned out to be vacant after the ex-Golos frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk left politics. For some time this role was claimed by the former Russian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, who is now participating in the movement in defense of Sternenko. There is a struggle for leadership in the Golos party itself – between the official successor of Vakarchuk, Kira Rudik, and a more radical wing, inclined to support Sternenko.
Poroshenko against Zelensky: For the leader of the moderate national-patriotic opposition Petro Poroshenko, the situation is unfavorable. On the one hand, his monopoly on patriotism is threatened by young forces from the Sternenko support group – he clearly fails to keep them under his wing. On the other hand, the turn in the policy of Zelensky, who staked on patriotic mobilization against pro-Russian politicians and oligarchs, inevitably leads them to compete for one voter.
Poroshenko’s image as the only pro-Ukrainian pol-itician opposed by Mos-cow’s mismatched fifth col-umns fades against the bac-kdrop of Zelensky’s effective strikes against the positions of the leader of the p-ro-Russian camp, M-edv-edchuk. Under Poroshe-nko, the leader of the OLE was an inviolable mediator in negotiations with Mos-cow, buying up assets and TV channels. Under Zele-nsky, Medvedchuk was re-moved from the negotiation process, his media empire was destroyed, even his pl-anes, on which he had previously flown freely to Mo-scow, were under sanctions.
Moreover, Ukrainskaya Pravda reports that law enforcement officers are now working hard to prove the involvement of Poroshenko’s entourage in Medvedchuk’s business schemes. The alarm in the camp of the former president is given by how hastily he copied the de facto Pryamoy TV channel, fearing that he might also be subject to sanctions.
In the fight for the title of the main patriot of Ukraine, Poroshenko is counting on Zelensky’s serious punctures along the patriotic line. In particular, great hopes are pinned on the publication of the Bellingcat investigation into the alleged failure of the SBU special operation against the Wagner PMC militants due to sabotage in the country’s top leadership (it is known that Poroshenko gave his comment to Bellingcat representative Christo Grozev).
Also on the side of Poroshenko are his personal charisma, the image of the savior of the country in the difficult war years and the idiosyncrasy of the national-patriotic voter in relation to Zelensky, which is difficult to overcome even with the most radical steps. In the ratings, Poroshenko consistently occupies the second position, and it will not be easy to oust him from his niche.
The radicals who attacked the president’s office can hardly be considered a support group for Poroshenko, but Bankova is still convinced that the actions in defense of Sternenko were inspired by the political strategists of the ex-president. Advisor to the head of the presidential office, Mikhail Podolyak, said on the air of the Ukraine 24 channel: “There was an attempt at political pressure with the help of such an action. Of course, in my opinion, you can name Petro Alekseevich Poroshenko as its key organizer. “
Deputies from Servant of the People accuse their colleagues from the EU and Golos factions of inviting people to the action that led to vandalism (Golos deputy Yaroslav Yurchishin also took part in the protest action itself). In general, the public rhetoric of the authorities is aimed at portraying the protesters as marginal hooligans hired by Poroshenko. However, such accusations are based only on circumstantial evidence: the same people often go to patriotic actions, including those from structures affiliated with Poroshenko.
The president’s office does not want to admit that, despite his new policy, Zelensky remains a stranger to national patriots. To hold on to power, he needs to balance between the two poles of Ukrainian politics, and an excessive tilt to one side can ruin the entire shaky structure. By shutting down Medvedchuk’s channels, Zelenskiy is depriving a popular source of information for the residents of the Russian-speaking southeast – the very moderate Russian-speaking inhabitants whose voices have largely made him president. For the sake of a controversial gain in the west, he is guaranteed to lose in the east. Protests that challenge the president’s power, however marginal they may be, irritate Zelenskiy. He is worried that, despite the first place in the ratings, his supporters are not ready to go to rallies in support of him. Zelensky has no streets, he has a police force, but using the police against the street means finally breaking with the legacy of the Maidan and becoming like Yanukovych.
The person who checks the limits of the necessary police measures in Zelensky’s team remains the permanent Interior Minister Arsen Avakov – perhaps the main beneficiary of the pogrom on Bankova, during which the police behaved very restrainedly with the protesters. As Zelenskiy is drawn into a sanctions confrontation with the old elites, he becomes increasingly dependent on the power vertical. Especially considering that many of his latest high-profile decisions have a very shaky legal basis.
In early March, Avakov gave several interviews, where he clearly demonstrated that he supports Zelensky’s right turn. “Zelensky did what Petr Alekseevich did not dare to do. Zelensky did what many true patriots of Ukraine expected from this government, from the government of Ukraine. Zelensky made a decision that seriously protects us, ” he said in an interview with Dmitry Gordon. Avakov is not going to soften his position with regard to street radicals: he made it clear that he does not consider Sternenko a hero (“you should not call those who invented the image of a rebel as revolutionaries”), criminal cases have been opened against the organizers of the action on Bankova Street. All this gives rise to rumors about a new strengthening of Avakov’s position and his claims to the post of prime minister. Broken glass and offensive graffiti on the building of the president’s office perfectly demonstrate what Zelensky’s power is worth without the power support that his permanent minister guarantees him.