December 11, 2023

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How Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s main in Ukraine, fell from grace

Entering politics and the ‘godfather’ connection

More than 40 years ago, in autumn 1980, another trial behind closed doors also dramatically affected Medvedchuk’s life and reputation. In the dark days of the Soviet 1980s, Medvedchuk, then 26, was appointed as a public defender in a case in Kyiv that was to reverberate for decades in Ukraine. His client was a dissident poet, Vasyl Stus, who had been accused of “anti-Soviet agitation”. His subsequent death in the Soviet labour camps was to become a symbol of the injustice of the Soviet system.

Medvedchuk became head of the Union of Lawyers of Ukraine in 1990; the following year, as Ukraine became an independent state, he co-founded one of the first private law firms in the country. With his business partners, he privatised the Ukrainian capital’s main football club, Dynamo Kyiv, and set up banks and industrial consortiums.

Medvedchuk also became active in politics. In 1997, he was elected to parliament for the first time. He was also an adviser to Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, and in 1999 ran a successful campaign for Kuchma’s re-election.

In 2002, Kuchma asked Medvedchuk to lead his administration. As Kuchma’s second term as head of state was coming to an end, he was cementing his ‘power vertical’ and the oligarchic model of governing the country. As head of the presidential administration, Medvedchuk secured his first unofficial status as the ‘grey cardinal’ of Ukrainian politics. He was credited with controlling large-scale industry, organising surveillance of the opposition and sending instructions to the national TV channels on how to cover events in the country “correctly”.

But working in Ukraine’s presidential administration gave Medvedchuk much more than just power over Ukraine.

He met Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and then his boss, President Vladimir Putin. In 2003, Putin was the guest of honour when Medvedchuk married his third wife, TV star Oksana Marchenko, in Crimea. A year later, the Russian president baptised the couple’s daughter, Daria, in St Petersburg – hence the ‘godfather’ connection between Putin and Medvedchuk that is well known in Russia and Ukraine.

These inter-family connections, so important for east European politicians of the post-communist era, drastically influenced Medvedchuk’s future path. He gave up on his own presidential ambitions in Ukraine, relinquishing the possibility of becoming Kuchma’s successor to Viktor Yanukovych, then regional governor of Donetsk.

His help did not stop there: he persuaded Ukraine’s election commission to declare Yanukovych the winner of the 2004 presidential election, despite opposition protests against vote fraud. The ensuing protest campaign – later nicknamed the ‘Orange Revolution’ – disrupted the Kremlin-approved plan for a ‘soft’ transfer of power in Ukraine between Kuchma and Yanukovych.

Yet when Medvedchuk lost his position in Ukraine’s presidential administration, he retired from public politics in Ukraine for a while, but did not lose Putin’s support.

“Viktor Medvedchuk is an exceptionally competent person, consistent in his actions and, of course, reliable,” Putin wrote in a newspaper article in 2009. “Like a true patriot, he defends, first of all, the interests of his native Ukraine.”