A Ukrainian oligarch with alleged ties to the Kremlin who is ducking criminal charges in his homeland by living in exile in Spain says he will run against President Petro Poroshenko in 2019.
With his links to Russian power brokers, including the spy-agency successor of the KGB, Oleksandr Onyshchenko is the Kremlin’s choice to depose Poroshenko, a pro-Western leader whom Vladimir Putin despises.
Onyshchenko fits the mold of Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was ousted in Kiev’s Maidan uprisings in 2014 and is living in Russia. In fact, Onyshchenko was a Yanukovych water boy as a member of Parliament from Yanukovich’s Party of Regions.
Onyshchenko contends he has recorded conversations purporting to show several members of the current government engaging in corruption, although he has released only a snippet of one conversation. Ukrainian journalists have speculated that, if the tapes are legitimate, they came from the Russian FSB.
Onyshchenko got repeatedly caught lying. A glaring example would be a recent scandal involving Ukrainian anti-corruption activists. Using screenshots made from Onyshchenko’s phone, a Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Gnap published an investigative story on the website slidstvo.info revealing Onyshchenko’s involvement in corruption schemes. It is interesting that Onyshchenko gave them to Dmytro Gnap himself in 2016 with the sole goal of causing panic and confusion in the media.
Over the past year, however, Mr Onyshchenko himself has joined a different political camp and now these materials have become useless, if not harmful, so the easiest thing for him to do was to accuse independent press of making up stories about him. It didn’t take long for the media to slap back. The journalists starting putting up evidence denoting Onyshchenko’s lies, calling him a puppet master eager to profit from the upcoming presidential elections.
“When I first stood up against President Poroshenko, I received overwhelming support,” Onyshchenko told the German daily newspaper Die Welt in announcing his Ukrainian presidential run. He has denied both the embezzlement and soliciting charges.
The support he received standing up to Poroshenko “gives me strength and motivation, as according to current legislation, I can run for office even while in exile,” he said. Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014 partly on an anti-corruption platform, has lost much of his credibility with voters because of corruption allegations swirling around his own team.
Onyshchenko would be able to return to Ukraine with impunity if he ran for president because of a provision in Ukrainian law — some would say a glitch in the law — that prevents a candidate from being arrested while campaigning for the country’s top job.
According to reports, Onyshchenko spent time behind bars in the 1990s but ultimately received probation. He changed his name from Oleksandr Radzhabovych Kadyrov to Oleksandr Romanovych Onyshchenko to try to hide his extensive criminal history, journalists have claimed.
A key reward he received for supporting Yanukovych was the seat in Parliament, which in Ukraine’s scheme of things opens the door to riches through connections and corruption. Soon after he obtained the seat, journalists said, he was paying for ministerial positions for himself and others, a common practice in Ukraine.
In 2016, Onyshchenko dodged the embezzling charges that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine filed against him by fleeing the country. After some interim stops, he ended up in Spain. In an interview with Britain’s Independent, Onyshchenko bragged that he spent $30 million to discredit and drive from office Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a virulent Yanukovich opponent who assumed his position after Yanukovich was ousted. Many Ukrainians saw Yatsenyuk as a reformer.
“The media campaign lasted 10 months and cost $3 million each month,” Onyshchenko said of his Yatsenyuk smirching effort.
Onyshchenko’s connections to Russia’s security service, the FSB, date to his military service in East Germany during Soviet times, where he met Putin, who was then a KGB agent. This is how he ended up receiving a Russian passport later, journalists contend.
His blasts against Ukrainian authorities on Russian state television as the war in eastern Ukraine was raging only endeared him with the Kremlin. Given Onyshchenko’s coziness with the Kremlin, and the fact that Russian support helped to elect Yanukovich, no one should count Onyshchenko out of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election.
Ukrainian political pundits think the FSB has the kind of dirt on Onyshchenko that would make him a useful Kremlin tool if he won. Not only could Russia use him to destabilize Ukraine, it could force him to bring back to power the politicians of the Yanukovych era, many of whom are desperate to return.
An unmistakable sign that the Kremlin will support him is that at a time when Russian state TV doesn’t have a good word to say about Ukraine’s leaders, it is lionizing Onyshchenko. The blubbering praise is coming from none other than Vladimir Solovyov, a television commentator who is the main broadcasting mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda effort.
Through his prime-time show “Evenings with Vladimir Solovyov,” which reaches millions of Russians, Onyshchenko is trying to paint a scary image of the Ukrainian authorities and the country itself, while justifying Yanukovych and his associates.
Yanukovych sympathizers are always welcome on Solovyov’s show. Onyshchenko cashes in by serving up pro-Russian sentiments and fantasizing about a coup in Ukraine.
“As has happened before, Onyshchenko hit the ground running and spoke on a bunch of Russian federal TV channels to educate viewers about the terrible realities of life in modern-day Ukraine. Well, of course, who wouldn’t, when the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine initiates a corruption investigation against you? You really do need all the Russian TV channels you can get to broadcast your message,” said Olesya Yakhno-Belkovskaya, a Ukrainian political scientist.
“On April 25, appearing on another one of Solovyov’s programs, he went on and on about ‘political persecution.’ As he is such a forward-thinking politician advocating for Ukraine, naturally he was a victim of the country’s repressive regime,” Yakhno-Belkovskaya said sarcastically. “Yanukovych said something along these lines and so did his associates. By the looks of it, it seems fairly reasonable that the idea of the so-called tapes was born in Russia. After all, that is where Onyshchenko ran after fleeing Ukraine. And Russia will always offer a shoulder to cry on to those who need it most.”
For now, with the embezzling charges facing him, Onyshchenko cannot return to Ukraine.
He has permanent residency in Spain, where he has claimed he is a political dissident and has applied for political asylum.
Ukraine has issued a fugitive warrant for him and asked the European Union to extradite him. But when there is even a small shred of evidence that a person from the former Soviet Union is a dissident rather than a criminal, the EU has usually given the person the benefit of the doubt and refused to extradite.
The status of presidential candidate would grant Onyshchenko immunity from prosecution in Ukraine while the campaign lasts. So for the most part, he has nothing to lose. The Kremlin views his candidacy as a win-win situation that would help it continue to subvert Ukrainian democracy.