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2 February, 2017  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

Kharkiv vs Donetsk

What’s the purpose behind the new party of Vadym Rabinovych and Yevhen Murayev?

Just a few years ago, the Party of the Regions seemed indomitable and almighty. Built on the oligarchic clans of Ukraine’s southeastern oblasts, all the opinion polls showed it as the clear leader. Regionals, as they were called, could afford to spend limitless amounts on election campaigns and spared no cost to promote themselves.

The party’s dead, long live the party!

But after the Euromaidan ended in February 2014 and Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, the PR monolith simply fell apart before everyone’s eyes. Within a matter of weeks, the party’s main activists abandoned it and the well-established brand turned into a curse that everyone quickly tried to distance themselves from. With this disaster on their hands, the clans that previously clustered around Yanukovych broke up into a handful of smaller groupings, none of whom wanted to pick up the old blue-and-white banner, which was now associated with killings in the heart of Kyiv.

Most of the old Regionals continued their political careers under the banner of the newly-formed Opposition Bloc. And, in fact, it is generally seen as the heir to the Party of the Regions in the current Verkhovna Rada. Still, some splinter groups also decided to go their own ways, and so Ukrainians saw the Vidrodzhennia or Rebirth group form in the Rada under the leadership of Vitaliy Khomutynnyk, a veteran PR man and Makiyivka homeboy. After the defeat of the Donetsk clan, he not only did not lose influence but even expanded it by joining forces with PrivatBank owner and former Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskiy. Today, Khomutynnyk is considered the star of the new Ukrainian oligarchy.

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In the last VR elections, former PM and one-time owner of PrivatBank Serhiy Tihipko tried to also gain some seats with his Sylna Ukraina or Strong Ukraine party, but failed to reach the threshold of 5%. The Presidential Administration also joined the electoral field by forming a party called Nash Krai or Our Country, which mostly included former members of Party of the Regions.

Nor was this the end of the splintering. A few months ago, yet another political party appeared out of the ashes of Yanukovych’s party. A group of deputies headed by Yevhen Murayev and Vadym Rabinovych broke away from the Opposition Bloc, announcing that their new party would be called Zhyttia or Life. Like their predecessors, they are also oriented on the pro-Russian voter and have been using pro-Russian rhetoric.

Rabinovych and rumor

Rumors that the Opposition Bloc was breaking up have circulated for some time. From the very start, it was evident that there were two conflicting centers of power: Yuriy Boyko’s people and Rinat Akhmetov’s people. But the break happened in a completely different place. Rabinovych and Murayev left in May-June 2016, accusing the Bloc that it wasn’t properly an opposition and was playing “Let’s make a deal” with the current administration.

Initially, few took this seriously. But soon opinion polls wee showing that the new political party was picking up in popularity, even though it is currently still largely on paper. The constant presence of both Murayev and Rabinovych on televisions has done its job. The result of a joint poll by Razumkov and KIIS suggests that Zhyttia could already pass the 5% threshold. In some presidential ratings, Rabinovych is already beating his rival Yuriy Boyko of the Opposition Bloc.

What makes this even stranger is a reminder of some well-known details from Rabinovych’s bio. Back in soviet times, this Ukrainian media owner and politician was taken to court for “theft of soviet property” and spent six years in a maximum security prison.

According to his Wikipedia entry, “from late 1980 to early 1982, Rabinovych ran an underground factory producing crystal dinnerware, calendars and wooden doors. He was then arrested again, this time accused of embezzling state funds in particularly large quantities. He latter admitted that, after being arrested, he simulated insanity for over a year. On February 10, 1984, he was sentenced by the Kharkiv Oblast Court to 14 years in prison in a high security rehabilitation and labor camp, with the confiscation of all assets and a ban on engaging in professional activities for five years. The prison was not far from Kharkiv.”

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These and other details of 63 year-old Vadym Rabinovych’s biography were also published in a book by German author Jürgen Roth called “Oligarch.” Presented in Berlin in 2001, the book was dedicated not so much to Rabinovych as to his exposé of Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians. At the time, another Ukrainian oligarch, Oleksandr Volkov apparently offered Roth DM 600,000 to buy out the entire print-run, according to press reports, because he wanted to keep some details of his own biography out of the public eye.

Another curious detail is Rabinovych’s dual citizenship, which hasn’t stopped him from sitting in the Rada as an elected deputy. Back in the 1990s, he was granted an Israeli passport. In 1999, this allowed the Ukrainian government to ban him from entering Ukraine as an Israeli citizen for five years. According to the SBU, the decision to ban was made on June 24, 1999, based on information that Israeli citizen Vadym Rabinovych was involved in “activities that have led to substantial losses to the Ukrainian economy,” and “in order to safeguard national security.” Not long before, at the end of 1998, the SBU had issued entry bans for a similar term to Rabinovych’s partner and also an Israeli citizen, Leonid Wolf, who was fingered as a notorious criminal boss. Both bans were dropped not soon afterwards.

Whatever else might be said, an individual with such a spotty background would unlikely be able to have serious political ambitions in a normal democracy. But Ukraine’s voters are known to be willing to forgive their politicians a good deal. In the Rada corridors a sad joke is already going around that Yanukovych supporters aren’t capable of voting for someone who hasn’t done time, so Rabinovych is guaranteed to succeed.

Murayev and misinformation

Yevhen Murayev, on the other hand, the co-founder of the new party, has a far less scandalous reputation. Given his relatively young age—he turned 40 on Dec. 2—, Murayev never managed to take part in the gangland tugs-o-war of the 1990s, so his biography is not tainted by any criminal episodes. This makes Murayev a potentially more dangerous politician and less vulnerable to rivals than Rabinovych.

After the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014, Murayev became one of the few domestic politicians who were neither afraid nor ashamed to fairly openly take the side of Russia and its proxies. In contrast to many other former members of the Opposition Bloc, who though it better to answer questions about the war evasively or not at all, Murayev openly supports forces that against Ukraine. It suffices to point out that this past summer, he declared on Channel 112 that Mariupol was liberated from DNR forces by American mercenaries working for Greystone and Blackwater, private military companies that actually no longer exist under those names. Similar nonsense that had no basis in reality was widely disseminated in Russian media in 2014.

Having taken such a radical and provocative position, Murayev is clearly counting on garnering votes from the most pro-Russian electorate, primarily supporters of the Communist Party of Ukraine under Petro Symonenko, which disappeared from the political scene after the Euromaidan.

So, how did Yevhen Murayev get in to big politics in the first place? Different stories have been told. The best-known version is that this 40 year-old is either the nephew or some other relative of Mykola Azarov, but there is no evidence of this. Murayev’s links to Rabinovych are more obvious, as both of them are from Kharkiv.

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Murayev’s success can be attributed largely to Oleh Taranov, one of whose daughters, Valeria, is married to him. An influential Kharkivian, 61-year-old Taranov had top positions at the big industrial enterprises of the city back in soviet ties. In the early 1990s, he began his own business. By 1994, Taranov had become a member of the Council for Economic Reforms under the Office of the President of Ukraine and in 1996 he was even briefly a deputy minister in the Lazarenko Government. Local legend in Kharkiv has it that Taranov met Rabinovych back in soviet times, when the future oligarch was running his underground workshop and had not yet been jailed. Taranov’s connections and reputation, thus, were instrumental in helping Murayev launch his political career in Party of the Regions and eventually to launch a more ambitious project with Rabinovych.

So far, Murayev has done well. Thanks to his family connections, he avoided getting mixed up in dubious schemes and was able to get into business at a young age, and then into politics. Today, he’s the owner of one of the most popular Ukrainian channels, NewsOne, which generously promotes its owner and his political party. Nor is Murayev tight-fisted with his asset. Still, little is known about the source of the money that is supporting this television channel.

Whatever the case may be, the party formed by Rabinovych and Murayev has a good chance of not only gaining seats in the Verkhovna Rada during the next election, but also putting a serious squeeze on the Opposition Bloc’s electoral hopes. Both Kharkivians know how to speak effectively in public, which contrasts strongly with most seemingly tongue-tied former Regionals. If this happens, then the Donetsk clans will soon be replaced by Kharkiv in Ukrainian politics. Finally, the “first capital” of soviet Ukraine will gain a role as one of the key political centers of Ukraine.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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