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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spin Doctors Blame Yanukovych

Back in Moscow after campaigning for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, two prominent Kremlin-connected spin doctors sought to deflect criticism of their role by turning on Yanukovych, saying his criminal past had made their job very difficult.

This, not Russian interference in the election, had led to the mass demonstrations in support of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, said Sergei Markov, who was part of a team of political consultants sent to help Yanukovych, the Kremlin's pick.

But Ukrainian political analysts said the Russian spin doctors had underestimated the differences between the two countries and that PR techniques that worked in Russia had rebounded against Yanukovych.

Even if Ukraine and Russia have a common past, there is a fundamental difference between the two countries, as Russian civil society is weak and easy to manipulate, while Ukrainian civil society is not, they said.

Markov pinned the blame for the backlash on the streets of Kiev on the Ukrainian political elite for backing Yanukovych.

"They picked Yanukovych as a candidate. How is it possible to choose a person for the job who was convicted several times? What could we do to convince people to vote for him?" Markov said by telephone Monday.

In 1967, while still a teenager, Yanukovych, 54, was convicted of robbery. Three years later, he was jailed for severely beating someone up.

Ukrainian opposition deputies have asserted that Yanukovych was guilty of more serious crimes. They claimed he tore earrings from people's ears and tried to rape a girl. The records of these offenses have apparently disappeared from the police station where they were held.

Yanukovych has repeatedly denied these accusations, while his supporters have put the two convictions down to "youthful indiscretions."

Markov also complained that Yanukovych's public speaking skills left something to be desired.

"Yanukovych is not a good speaker. He doesn't speak proper Ukrainian or Russian," Markov said. "But we could do something about that -- the main problem, again, was his criminal past."

Kremlin-connected political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Foundation for Effective Policy, criticized Yanukovych on NTV's Sunday morning "Apelsinovy Sok" program for "a lack of leadership" and for agreeing to hold talks with the opposition.

Pavlovsky lashed out at the Yushchenko campaign, saying the opposition was staging a "revolution that has the color of children's diarrhea." He compared Yushchenko to Hitler and called key Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko "an impudent woman."

Pavlovsky also described Western policy toward Ukraine as a "political invasion" and said Russia should now review its relations with the West.

In an interview that appeared in Friday's Komsomolskaya Pravda, Pavlovsky said the Russian spin doctors in Kiev had done a good job.

"From the beginning of the year [Yanukovych's] support quadrupled," the newspaper quoted Pavlovsky as saying. "After [what we did for] Putin, this is a phenomenon. I can't see any failure from our side."

In September, Pavlovsky launched a "Russian Club" in Kiev. Yushchenko's supporters described the club, ostensibly a nongovernmental forum to discuss bilateral relations, as a channel through which Moscow sought to influence the campaign. President Vladimir Putin paid two high-profile visits to Ukraine during the campaign, offering strong support for Yanukovych's policies, and proposing dual citizenship -- Russian and Ukrainian -- and relaxing registration requirements for Ukrainians in Russia.

Markov said the Russian PR team had started working too late -- in July -- and he personally only went to Kiev in August. What is more, Markov said, the Ukrainian politicians who backed Yanukovych did not allow the Russian political consultants to work freely.

"If we were given a free hand, we would have done a great job," he said.

Ukrainian politicians, Markov said, made many "naive" decisions, such as doubling pensions to win votes. "Yanukovych needed to have a social idea behind this initiative to make it work, but there wasn't any," he said.

The campaign, Markov said, was too concentrated on the media, and too few public figures were recruited to speak for Yanukovych. The campaign also relied too heavily on anti-American rhetoric, which works in Russia, but not in Ukraine, he said.

"Russians consider themselves equal to Americans, but Ukrainians do not. They don't see anything wrong in having a big brother taking care of them. ... I told them to use anti-Polish rhetoric, since Ukrainians consider themselves equal to that country," Markov said.

Markov said the Ukrainian politicians backing Yanukovych underestimated the opposition and were not prepared for the protests. "They told me that nothing was going to happen if Yanukovych won."

But two Kiev-based political analysts -- Volodymyr Polokhalo, an analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, and Hryhoriy Nemyria, director of the Kiev-based Center for European and International Studies -- said the Russian spin doctors had treated Ukraine like Russia and campaigned the way they would have done back home.

"But our civil society is more mature and difficult to manipulate," Polokhalo said. "They used media propaganda to discredit Yushchenko. He was depicted as a fascist and nationalist, but people didn't believe it. The effect was like that of a boomerang."

Polokhalo said that even some young people who were not Yushchenko supporters cast their ballot for him "not because they liked him, but because they wanted to fight for their right to have a fair election."

"They didn't realize that Ukraine has a mature civil society, and that we have an opposition that has showed a remarkable solidarity," Nemyria said. "They did not take into account these factors, since they do not exist in Russia."

Polokhalo said that, ironically, the PR campaign had "helped Ukrainian civil society become stronger."

"Thanks a lot," he said.

Markov said two Moscow PR agencies, Nikkolo-M and Image Contact, were working for Yushchenko. Neither agency could be reached for comment Monday.

Markov said he and Pavlovsky helped Yanukovych at the Kremlin's request, and that political consultant Vyacheslav Nikonov and Putin aide Igor Shuvalov were also engaged by the Yanukovych team.

Markov said that Russian businesses with interests in Ukraine were paying for their services, but would not say how much money was spent and who the businessmen were. Russian businesses are reported to have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars.

"That information is too confidential," Markov said.

But Markov said it was not too late to mend things. "Our task is to help Russia win," he said, without elaborating.