By Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine and Russia could swap prisoners within a matter of days, including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov whom Moscow jailed on terrorism charges, if Kiev shows the necessary political will, a close Kremlin ally in Ukraine said.
Viktor Medvedchuk, 64, the main face of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly opposition, was speaking before a parliamentary election on Sunday where polls suggest President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party will win but may fall short of a majority.
Medvedchuk’s party will likely come second but he ruled out seeking a coalition with former comedian Zelenskiy, telling Reuters their ideologies were too far apart.
Medvedchuk said Russian President Vladimir Putin respected Zelenskiy but was waiting to hear his position on solving the Donbass conflict, which has claimed 13,000 lives in five years.
Ukraine and its western allies have pressed Moscow to release prisoners, including Sentsov, who was jailed in 2015.
A native of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula who opposed its annexation by Russia in 2014, Sentsov says his original conviction was politically-motivated.
Ukraine has dozens of prisoners in Russia, though it is unclear how many Russians are being held in Ukraine.
“It depends on the political will of the Ukrainian president Mr Zelenskiy. If there is such a political will, it is possible to negotiate and I affirm that it is possible to agree on this,” Medvedchuk said about prisoner swaps.
“I know the opinion of the other side (Russia) – it is possible to agree,” he added in the interview at his office in Kiev on Friday. “And this can be done in a few days.”
FRIEND OF PUTIN
Medvedchuk’s words carry weight due to his friendship with Putin and record as a go-between. The Russian leader is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter, and the Ukrainian said they spoke on his most recent visit to Moscow last week.
A comic actor and political novice, Zelenskiy, 41, won Ukraine’s presidency in April, saying his priority was peace in Donbass, where Ukrainian soldiers are fighting Russian-backed fighters.
Zelenskiy and Putin spoke by phone for the first time last Thursday and discussed a possible prisoner exchange.
Zelenskiy has offered to talk with Putin in a neutral venue – the Belarus capital Minsk. Ukraine and Russia have previously held talks accompanied by Germany and France.
“He (Putin) respects this person (Zelenskiy), but he does not yet know his position and therefore this respect is not enough – it is necessary to know his position for the restoration of relations,” Medvedchuk said.
Zelenskiy has proposed widening the talks to include the United States and Britain. Medvedchuk called that unrealistic and “pre-election PR”, though he said a meeting between Zelenskiy and Putin should happen as soon as possible.
A lawyer and businessman, Medvedchuk is a senior figure in the Opposition Platform – For Life party and is under investigation for treason over his views on Donbass.
Western sanctions on Moscow have proved unproductive, Medvedchuk added. “It means that one must look for another way, it means one must sit down at the negotiating table.”
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams)