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Renewal Or 'Revanche'? Buzzwords Of Ukraine's Parliamentary Elections Forecast Tension Following Vote

Supporters of ex-President Petro Poroshenko protest inside the State Bureau of Investigation, accusing it of cooperation with officials linked to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych on July 15..
Supporters of ex-President Petro Poroshenko protest inside the State Bureau of Investigation, accusing it of cooperation with officials linked to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych on July 15..

KYIV -- Riding the wave of public anger over corruption, war, and low living standards that swept political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy into the presidency in April, his Servant of the People party looks set to win by far the most parliament seats in the snap elections he scheduled for July 21.

Should it do so -- and all polls indicate the party will get more than 40 percent -- dozens of novices will enter parliament for the first time.

With rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk's Holos (Voice) party also hoping to win seats, some 70-80 percent of the Verkhovna Rada's 424 seats up for grabs could be filled by first-time deputies -- the largest renewal of Ukraine's legislature since independence in 1991.

Depending in part on how those newcomers wield their power, the change could mean progress on issues such as crucial reforms to secure billions of dollars of loans and efforts to end the war against Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people in the last five years. Or it could go the way of previous parliaments, divided and unproductive, ultimately winding up as unpopular as before.

But amid the talk of renewal, some say they fear the vote could result in "revanche."

The word seems to be everywhere in election-crazed Ukraine -- in posts on social media, in news headlines, in the theme of protests, and even as the main topic of a TV marathon days before the election.

Revanche has emerged as one of the buzzwords of this extraordinary election cycle. Those posting, protesting, and pronouncing the word come from nationalist and right-wing political camps fighting tooth-and-nail to win seats in parliament, and also from some pro-Western activists who say they are concerned about the country's future.

Leading the cry of revanche is Viktor Yanukovych's successor, Petro Poroshenko, and his European Solidarity party.
Leading the cry of revanche is Viktor Yanukovych's successor, Petro Poroshenko, and his European Solidarity party.

Return Of The Old Guard?

Revanche has become a way to describe what those warning of it say they fear is the return of powerful tycoons and political elites from the era of Moscow-friendly former President Viktor Yanukovych, and the perceived threat of a tilt toward Russia and a rollback of progress half a decade after the pro-Western Euromaidan protests pushed him from office.

Leading the cry of revanche is Yanukovych's successor, Petro Poroshenko, and his European Solidarity party, which after the incumbent's lopsided loss to Zelenskiy in the April presidential runoff has struggled to garner support in the parliamentary race. Polls show his party with around 7-8 percent, behind both Zelenskiy's party and Opposition Platform-For Life, whose chairman is a close acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On July 15, three TV channels, including two owned or closely connected to Poroshenko, aired a joint two-hour Stop Revanche Marathon, during which the former president and members of his party accused Zelenskiy of backing -- explicitly or at least tacitly -- pro-Russian revanche. They cited his links to tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy, with whom the new president has done business, as well as some of his controversial appointments and proposals since taking office.

"Poroshenko's party is seeking to inflate this issue as much as possible, especially on social networks, and scare former Euromaidan supporters with the threat of 'revenge,'" says Volodymyr Fesenko, director of Kyiv's Penta Center for Political Studies. "At the same time, Poroshenko is trying to convince voters that only his party can protect against revanche."

Back In Ukraine

If anyone embodies revanche in the eyes of those warning against it, that person is Andriy Portnov, a former deputy head of the Yanukovych administration who -- like Yanukovych and some other officials -- fled the country as the Euromaidan protests gathered force in early 2014, fearing prosecution.

Five years later, Portnov has returned and is speaking his mind in public and on social media. Chief among his targets is Poroshenko, whom he has threatened to sue.

But he has also aired controversial suggestions that critics say have lent credence to Poroshenko's warnings of revanche.

In particular, Portnov earlier this month said a law banning Yanukovych-era officials from holding office again should be expanded to include Poroshenko-era officials. Soon after, Zelenskiy also voiced support for the move.

Poroshenko responded by calling the move an attack against "those who defended the state and built the state," and accused Zelenskiy of seeking to "lustrate them in order to open up a space for the fifth column."

The suggestion also received broad criticism, including from Zelenskiy supporters and from abroad.

'Big Gaffe'

"Idiotic move by [Zelenskiy] and his first big gaffe thus far since taking office," London-based economist Timothy Ash wrote in a note to investors.

And the Group of Seven countries' ambassadors to Ukraine released a statement cautioning the president. "Electoral change and political rotation are the norm in democracies," they said. "Indiscriminate bans on all participants in executive and legislative governance are not."

They added, "the situation in Ukraine today is, in our conviction, not comparable to that after the Revolution of Dignity," referring to the Euromaidan uprising by its official name in Ukraine.

Ukrainian politicians Yuriy Boyko (center), and Viktor Medvedchuk (right) meet with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in March.
Ukrainian politicians Yuriy Boyko (center), and Viktor Medvedchuk (right) meet with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in March.

In Zelenskiy's rise, explains Volodymyr Yermolenko, director for analysis at Internews Ukraine and editor in chief of UkraineWorld, a networking initiative that seeks to explain Ukrainian issues to outsiders, some critics see a "more skillful and cunning comeback" of Russia-friendly figures "masked as some pro-European movement."

In addition to Portnov, politicians warning of revanche point to the rise of the Russia-friendly Opposition Platform-For Life, which is polling second and appears set to get about 10-12 percent in the voting by party list.

The party's leaders, Yuriy Boyko and Viktor Medvedchuk, are controversial political figures with close ties to the Kremlin who have made several trips to Russia this campaign season. Its platform calls for restoring relations with Moscow and turning Ukraine away from the European path it has pursued since the protests pushed Yanukovych out in February 2014 and ignited the wrath of Moscow, which seized Crimea and helped fuel a war in eastern Ukraine that still simmers as the death toll rises above 13,000.

But analysts say many of the warnings of revanche are overblown.

Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and head of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, says he doesn't think Portnov or the Russia-friendly party portend "revanche in the sense that former people from Yanukovych's regime will come to power."

That reading seems supported by the fact that the Opposition Bloc, a Russia-friendly party filled with people connected to Yanukovych, is polling well below the 5 percent threshold to win seats in parliament.

Revanche Redux

Fesenko argues that real revanche came in 2006, when Yanukovych became prime minister for a second time, two years after the pro-democracy Orange Revolution, and in 2010, when he was elected president. Appointments of dozens of Moscow-friendly figures to cabinet positions followed.

"Then it was a real return of the former [elites] to power," Fesenko says, adding that he sees no similar figure with a chance at such a position today.

Haran says he sees some Russia-friendly politicians "using this period of transition and uncertainty to try to restore their positions in the public sphere."

The Right Direction?

Polls indicate that most Ukrainians don't believe pro-Russian revanche is under way. An International Republican Institute survey published on July 9 showed that Ukrainians increasingly believe the country is heading in the right direction.

According to the survey, 34 percent of Ukrainians believe Ukraine is moving in the right direction, up from just 16 percent in December, while 39 percent said the country was moving the wrong way, down from 70 percent in December.

A survey conducted in June by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center pointed to more optimism: It found that 41 percent of Ukrainians believed that events in Ukraine were moving in the right direction, compared to 36 percent who held the opposite opinion.

The findings marked the first time in their polling since 2005 that more Ukrainians believed events in Ukraine were moving in the right direction than those who believed the opposite, the pollsters noted. And according to a poll conducted by Rating Group the week before the election, 58 percent of Ukrainians were satisfied with Zelenskiy's work so far, while 19 percent said they were not.