Since 2014, Ukrainian observers have agreed: The country is moving West, for good.
Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Donbas and the aging Ukrainian pro-Russian electorate gave the impression that Western values, structural reforms and an aspiration to join the European Union were key to Ukraine’s post-revolution social contract.
They were wrong.
Ukraine’s pro-Russian elites are making a comeback. And the new ace in their hand is Anatoly Shariy, a young, pro-Russian blogger known for xenophobic rhetoric about Ukrainians, Jews, Roma people and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Shariy is not shy about promoting outright lies about Ukraine. He regularly appears on Russian state television and pro-Russian channels in Ukraine.
Despite living in the European Union since 2012, Shariy has amassed over 300,000 followers on Facebook and 2.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. His Telegram channel is among the most read in Ukraine.
His supporters organize protests and get into fistfights on the streets of Ukraine’s largest cities, while the blogger himself records multiple daily videos in which he accuses Zelensky of plotting his assassination.
Now Shariy is working to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of Western politicians, too. In his quest to promote the Russian agenda, he has found supporters among the German right-wing party, Alternative for Germany.
Despite lacking a concrete political platform, Shariy has managed to become the new face of Russia’s political agenda in Ukraine.
Now, his party has a good chance of making it into local councils during the October local elections.
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko does not yet see Shariy as an immediate threat, but his dive into mainstream politics can have lasting consequences.
“It works well for the Russian propaganda machine,” Fesenko says. “On one hand, they are helping Shariy, creating an image that he is backed in Europe. On the other hand, they are using (Shariy) as their proxy to destabilize Ukraine.”
In 2019, Shariy decided to capitalize on his online fame and compete for a seat in parliament. His party failed to pass the five percent threshold, getting 2.2% of the vote. Now, however, the Party of Shariy, as it is officially called, has a second chance.
Ukraine will hold its local elections on Oct. 25. According to the Rating Group pollster, Shariy’s party has a chance at making it into the city councils in five regional capitals, all in eastern Ukraine.
In the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, home to 500,000 people, Shariy enjoys up to 8% support.
The party is led by Shariy’s wife Olga Shariy, who also runs Shariy.net, which presents itself as a news website. However, it mostly promotes Shariy and his wife.
Shariy allies himself with Viktor Medvedchuk, the closest ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. That gets him much-needed publicity. Medvedchuk’s television empire gives hours of prime airtime to Shariy and his followers.
Shariy appears regularly on NewsOne and Channel 112. Both are officially owned by Taras Kozak, a lawmaker with the Opposition Platform — For Life party. However, Ukrainian journalists allege that the channels actually belong to party leader Medvedchuk. He denies it.
Shariy appears during prime time as an expert, journalist or even as the main guest. His own party members, under fake names, ask him softball questions during talk shows.
“Under Shariy’s brand, they’re trying to bring a huge number of pro-Russian-oriented people to power, to parliament, to local councils,” Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Ivanov told the Kyiv Post.
Ivanov has a tense relationship with Shariy. The two have attacked one another online.
Today, Shariy fills the empty niche of a young pro-Russian politician.
According to Rating Group polls, the pro-Russian Opposition Platform — For Life party is predominantly supported by people over 50. Only 2% of Ukrainians under 30 are ready to support the party.
“If they don’t attract younger voters now, they will lose a substantial chunk of the electoral base,” says Ivanov. “The younger generation won’t vote for those ‘communist party-type’ figures.”
In 2019, those people voted for Zelensky. Now, Shariy wants to be their candidate.
Zelensky promised his voters a lot, including peace with Russia. Because it wasn’t yet achieved, the pro-Russian electoral base is now disenchanted, the polls show, and Zelensky lost over 10% of his support.
That’s the field where Shariy is playing.
Bigotry and lies
Shariy’s rise can be dangerous for Ukraine.
Before entering politics, Shariy made a name for himself selling Russian propaganda and hate online. He regularly attacked minorities and promoted dubious unproven claims about Ukraine.
Since the 2013–2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Shariy has been even more active online, promoting a pro-Russian agenda.
In 2015, Shariy recorded a video in which he said that people from western Ukraine are inferior to “real” Ukrainians.
“I’m Ukrainian. You’re not Ukrainian,” he said. “You’re… I’m not saying you’re second rate, but you are half-blood, third blood, quarter blood, you’re fuck knows what.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Shariy began retranslating Russian propaganda. He called Russia’s war against Ukraine an “internal conflict” and said that Russian tanks photographed on Ukrainian territory were actually Ukrainian.
He also tried to blame Ukraine for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014.
A day after the civilian airliner was shot down, killing all 298 people on board, Russian proxies began to spread lies that the plane was attacked by a Ukrainian fighter jet. That same day, Shariy published a 40-second audio recording on Youtube, which he claimed was leaked audio conversations of Ukrainian jet pilots. He hinted that they were involved in the tragedy.
Soon, Russian state media picked up the claim and began accusing Ukraine of shooting down MH17. However, the idea was so absurd that the Russian propagandists eventually ditch it.
The Joint Investigation Team led by the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service has ruled that the plane was shot down by a Russian Buk missile system.
Shariy’s bigotry extends beyond hatred of Ukrainians. In June, Ivanov dug up blogs published by Shariy on Politiko.ua, a local blogging platform, back in 2010. In those posts, Shariy wrote that homosexual men should be sterilized and Roma people and immigrants should be “cleared out.”
“After such comments, he should have been deported (from the EU),” says Ivanov.
But there’s a problem: Shariy likely holds the passport of a European Union country and isn’t planning on returning home.
Shariy is known for a luxurious lifestyle of brand-name clothing and multi-million-dollar villas on the Mediterranean coast.
On July 7, the Slidstvo.info investigative journalism project discovered that Shariy owns a villa near Barcelona worth over 1 million euros.
He has been living in the European Union since 2012.
Back in 2011, Shariy shot a man with a pneumatic pistol in a Kyiv McDonald’s restaurant. According to police, he also staged an attack against himself by hiring people to shoot his car.
Security camera footage leaked online shows Shariy shooting an unarmed man who was exiting the McDonalds in the back. Shariy then flees the crime scene.
Shariy has accused the Ukrainian police of political persecution. To this end, he fled the country and asked for asylum in Lithuania. His request was granted. In Ukraine, both cases are now closed.
In 2019, during court hearings on defamation charges Shariy leveled against his sister Olena Marchenko and Russian lawyer Mark Feygin, it was revealed that Shariy has a European Union passport.
Marchenko and Feygin had accused Shariy of pedophilia. They both lost in court.
Alternative for Germany… and Ukraine
Since June, Shariy has been actively working with pro-Russian European politicians in an attempt to discredit the Ukrainian authorities and undermine the country’s relations with the west.
“Those links suggest that Moscow is helping this project,” says Fesenko.
His main allies are lawmakers from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the right-wing populist minority party known for its pro-Russian sentiment.
On July 2, German AfD lawmaker Waldemar Herdt submitted an official letter to the Council of Europe’s High Commissioner on Human Rights prior to her visit to Ukraine.
Herdt said he was contacted by members of the “Sharia Party” about violence against the opposition in Ukraine. Herdt’s misspelling of Shariy’s last name could hardly hide the purpose of the message: pro-Russian politicians want to discredit Ukraine’s leaders.
Herdt, who was born in the Soviet Union and was a member of the Communist Party, is among Russian state media’s favorite EU lawmakers. He illegally visited occupied Crimea in 2018 during the Russian presidential election and praised the vote on Russian television.
In January, Herdt and his fellow AfD member Petr Bystron organized an official event for Medvedchuk in Berlin. Pro-Russian media branded the event as “German parliamentary support for Medvedchuk and his Donbas peace plan.”
Russia has been occupying parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region since 2014.
German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the event was held in the official parliamentary headquarters of the AfD. All other factions rejected the invitation. Only two non-AfD lawmakers listened in on the event.
The meeting’s goal was to demonstrate that pro-Russian groups in Ukraine are the only ones who want peace, promoting Russia as the peacemaker.
Members of the AfD have long faced accusations of harboring sympathy for the Kremlin. Their lawmakers have been paid to monitor fraudulent elections in Russia and have been regularly invited to visit the country. Their trips are financed by the Russian State Duma.
Lately, Shariy’s party has been trying to widen the range of its international supporters. His press secretary, Yulia Pavlenko, has been contacting German political experts and suggesting they make a public statement decrying alleged attacks on the opposition by radicals employed by the Ukrainian government.
The whole statement is a lie.
An employee for Medvedchuk’s 112 Channel is helping put him in touch with European politicians.
The most recent catch in Shariy’s net of pro-Russian European politicians is the far-left Irish European Parliament lawmaker Clare Daly, who has been accused of corruption for hiring her friend’s son as a paid assistant.
Daly held a public hearing condemning Ukrainian “radicals” and supporting the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Daly issued an official personal statement that the EU governments “helped foster extreme nationalism in Ukraine to serve a geopolitical agenda, and now neo-Nazis with government ties are beating up opponents and menacing civil society.”
Shariy uses such statements to undermine the Ukrainian government’s relations with western politicians. The aim is to push Zelensky into the arms of Russia.
It’s difficult to assess whether this strategy is working.
“(Shariy) relies on the radical left and radical right, which is basically the same thing,” says journalist Ivanov. “No serious politicians are taking him seriously.”
But it still can be risky for Ukraine.
“It’s beneficial for Russia to weaken Zelensky. Then they’ll have more tools to influence Ukraine,” says Kyiv Mohyla Academy Professor Oleksiy Haran.
After Daly made her statement, Channel 112 tuned in, posting news articles titled “European Parliament sharply condemns the spike in violence by right-wing radicals in Ukraine.” It failed to mention that the European Parliament has 751 lawmakers, not one.
Who is paying
All this activity by Shariy and his party requires vast investments. But where is the money coming from?
Ukrainian law enforcement is now asking the same question. On July 20, a Shariy party member was fined for using his account to transfer money of unproven origins into the party’s account.
In fact, the party’s entire financial statement looks like a laundromat. Each party registered in Ukraine must file a financial statement to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention.
“Creating regional headquarters, political promotion, media presence, salaries — it all can cost from $200,000 up to $2 million a month,” says Fesenko.
Shariy can’t afford that alone.
In 2019, Shariy’s party filed a financial statement stating that its budget was only Hr 6 million ($225,000). Moreover, the money came from donors who couldn’t afford such generous gifts.
In one instance, Shariy’s party declaration stated that Arusyak Arustamova, a retiree, donated Hr 420,000 ($16,000). When journalists called to ask where the money was from, the woman couldn’t answer. Later, she said it was part of some kind of arrangement.
Her husband, also a retiree, donated the same amount.
“When people top up a legal party account with money of unproven origins, acknowledging the fact that it is not their personal funds, that raises serious concerns,” says journalist Ivanov.
In 2020 Shariy’s party switched donors. Its main contributor is now a non-profit surprisingly called “Party of Shariy.” The non-profit doesn’t release a financial statement.
Shariy is a very popular YouTube personality who can potentially purchase a Spanish villa with his own income. But the amount of money he spends on political projects is impossible to accumulate from his online platforms.
“Knowing how many subscribers he has and how long he’s been on YouTube, I guess it’s possible (to buy a villa)” says Mykyta Roginets, media expert and head of BeTrue Media. Shariy’s income from YouTube may be over $30,000 a month.
However, Roginets points out that Shari spends vast sums on self-promotion.
“I know for a fact that he’s been spending over $60,000 in advertising on Facebook,” he adds. “That’s a huge amount.”
The State Fiscal Service of Ukraine opened an investigation into an alleged money laundering scheme organized by Shariy and his party. Shariy was summoned for questioning on July 3, but didn’t show up.
If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
Shariy may push a pro-Russian narrative, but Ukraine’s incumbent president is himself partly responsible for the blogger’s rise.
In the past months, members of Zelensky’s ruling party have supported Shariy in his attacks on Ukraine’s pro-Western opposition. In May, the Shariy.net website was accredited for Zelensky’s press conference dedicated to his first year in office. It was even allowed a question.
However, any alliance between Shariy and Zelensky’s people was never going to last. As Zelensky took a tougher stance on Russia, rejecting Russian demands in the Donbas, Shariy began to actively attack the president online.
Shariy began verbally attacking the president’s team and hiring people to protest in front of parliament. After journalists uncovered where Shariy lives in Spain, the blogger accused them of working for Zelensky.
Now Shariy claims that Zelensky’s administration is plotting his assassination. The Presidential Office responded by saying that Shariy is using Zelensky’s name for personal promotion.
As popular as Shariy may be on the internet, he is not an immediate threat. But political expert Fesenko believes that the legitimization of such a marginal figure in Ukrainian politics can have lasting consequences.
“Shariy’s aggressiveness is very dangerous,” says Fesenko.
“Our society is very neurotic. And when a political leader promotes this kind of aggressive approach, it causes unnecessary risks to our society.”
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