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As good as it gets

Should the West start preparing itself for a Ukraine under President Tymoshenko?

December 12, 2018 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Passionate Tymoshenko supporters protesting in front of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. 27.11.2013 Photo: Ivan Bandura (cc) flickr.com

The prominent western commentator of post-Soviet affairs Taras Kuzio has recently come forward with a barrel of English-language attacks on Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko – so far, the clear front-runner in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections in March 2019. Kuzio has placed several critical and partly denigrating texts about Tymoshenko in reputed analytical outlets, such as the web edition of the Polish journal New Eastern Europe and in the Ukraine Alert of the Atlantic Council of the United States. Kuzio insinuates that a Tymoshenko presidency may be on par with the rules of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, can mean a return to the multi-vector foreign policy of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, or could even lead Ukraine to eventually succumb again to Russia.

Who is Mrs Tymoshenko?

Tymoshenko entered Ukrainian politics when she became a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council, Ukraine’s parliament) in 1996, two years before Petro Poroshenko. Since then, she has had an illustrious political career in a country in transition with exceptionally sudden upheavals and sharp turns. As a member of parliament, party leader, deputy prime-minister and twice prime-minister, as well as today as opposition leader, Tymoshenko has made numerous decisions, announcements and comments which are worth scrutinising, discussing and criticising. The Kyiv fact-checking service VoxCheck has singled out Tymoshenko and her speech-writers for biased statements that, according to these well-regarded analysts, do not pass closer scrutiny. The members of her faction in the Verkhovna Rada have repeatedly voted against or abstained from voting for government-proposed reform laws justifying such actions, or inaction, with these laws’ alleged flaws. What should the West think and do about this?

If one follows the arguments laid out in the recent essays by Kuzio, the West should seem to have to prepare itself for a major political disruption or even course reversal in the foreign and domestic affairs of Ukraine in the case that Tymoshenko becomes its new leader. According to Kuzio’s warnings, under President Tymoshenko Ukraine could follow the path of today’s Venezuela and eventually end up in chaos or in Russia’s sphere of influence – or both. With such a grim outlook, presumably, western governmental and non-governmental organisations – not to mention Ukrainian democrats – should do everything they can to prevent such a sad future for Ukraine.

The problem with Kuzio’s gloomy predictions is not so much that they are overdrawn, but that they hinder constructive thinking about future Western-Ukrainian relations. Whatever interested observers in the West may wish or aspire for Ukraine’s future leadership, Tymoshenko as a presidential candidate and her party Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) as a contender in the autumn 2019 parliamentary elections currently lead the polls with a significant margin. Many western observers would, perhaps, prefer a relatively young president from the famous Euro-Optimist group in parliament or from such new parties as the Democratic Alliance or Power of the People. Some are enchanted with the popular singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk who has recently become interested in politics, started to study social sciences at Stanford University and could still announce his candidacy. Yet, as of November 2018, a likely scenario for the year 2019 is that Tymoshenko will become the next president and that her party’s share in parliament will significantly increase – independently of what Ukraine’s friends in Washington, Brussels or Berlin may dream of or plan for.

Continuity or change?

As of today, the only plausible alternative to a President Tymoshenko is, in fact, not the rise of a young reformer, but the continuation of Petro Poroshenko’s rule until 2024. Given the many contradictions in the public announcements and political decisions of both of these veteran politicians over the last 20-some years, western observers find it difficult to judge what would be better for Ukraine. Continuity or change?

While few serious observers go as far as Kuzio in his statements, many are skeptical of Tymoshenko because of her strident rhetoric, unrealistic promises and demonstrative opposition to the government, during the last four-and-a-half years. Against the background of this experience, some Western observers, like Kuzio, support a prolongation of Poroshenko’s presidency. The problem is that, according to opinion polls, Ukrainian voters are, as of late November 2018, of a clearly different opinion. So far, Poroshenko’s negative rating – i.e. the percentage of those who would not vote for the candidate under any circumstances – is, with 51.4%, exceptionally high and significantly above that of Tymoshenko who has also a relatively high negative rating of 27.5 per cent. Many Ukrainian civil society activists, moreover, are as (or more) critical of Poroshenko as (than) of Tymoshenko who is also disliked by numerous journalists, experts and diplomats in Ukraine and the West.

In any way, as of late 2018, a fundamental change of power in Kyiv during 2019 looks – reminiscent of the results of most earlier national elections in Ukraine – more likely than a continuation of Poroshenko’s rule. And it seems that this change will be to the benefit of Tymoshenko and Batkivhshchyna rather than any new pro-western force. What exactly will happen, if the former prime minister, her party and their allies indeed take over next year the presidency, parliament or/and government, is difficult to predict. But the West should already now get ready for that option.

Such a preparation should not only entail identifying, dissecting and pointing out inconsistencies in Tymoshenko’s current behaviour in parliament and speeches in public – a process certainly and urgently needed. Being the most probable scenario so far, a prospective ascendancy of Tymoshenko can and should – in spite of some black points in her biography – also be seen as a chance for a new start, improved relations and progressive development. Certain arguably positive aspects of her possible rise could serve as starting points for such a forward-looking approach.

Why Tymoshenko may not be that bad

First and foremost, Tymoshenko would be the first female president – after she had already been the first female prime minister in 2005 – in the eastern Slavic world. This will, by itself, be a noteworthy achievement in the context of the traditionalist culture of Orthodox Christian civilisation as well as neo-Soviet behavioural patterns that are both, to put it mildly, unsupportive of female power and proper emancipation. A Tymoshenko presidency would be a large step forward in terms of sexual equality in the entire post-Soviet world. It would help to encourage not only female Ukrainians, but also girls and women in other successor states of the USSR to seek political careers. A critical issue in Tymoshenko’s possible presidency and/or government will be whether she uses her increased executive and informal power to try and raise the share of women in the highest echelons of power to the generally recommended minimum level of 30% or, perhaps, to an even higher percentage.

Second, whereas Poroshenko was once co-founder of the thoroughly discredited Party of Regions (Yanukovych’s former political machine), Tymoshenko has managed to build, over the last 20 years, a relatively pro-western party called Batkivshchyna. Creating this organisation is by itself an accomplishment and good for Ukrainian democracy – independent of what one thinks about Tymoshenko. The few other more or less real political parties in Ukraine, such as the pro-Russian communist party or the ultra-nationalist Union Svoboda (Freedom), have tended to be, in terms of their ideologies, explicitly or implicitly anti-western.

Unlike most other political projects in Ukraine, Batkivshchyna possesses functioning regional as well as local branches. It has been present with a faction in Ukraine’s parliament for relatively many years now (since 2002). It is more or less evenly spread over Ukraine’s territory and popular not only because of Tymoshenko’s personality but also because of its socio-economic initiatives. In other words, it is a phenomenon closer, than other such Ukrainian groups, to a western political party than to a post-Soviet “political-technological” project or pseudo-party of which Ukraine had many since 1991.

Moreover, Batkivshchyna is an official partner of the European People’s Party, the large family of Christian-Democratic parties in the European Union. Its parliamentary faction includes such veteran pro-western diplomats as Borys Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s foreign minister in 1998-2000 and 2005-2007, and Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and International Integration in 2007-2010. To be sure, Batkivshchyna is – like many previous parties in Ukraine – so far clearly a leader-centred network dominated by and associated with its prominent head. Yet, its relatively long existence as a parliamentary force and developed institutional structure gives hope that this initiative could transform into a meaningful political organisation outliving its charismatic founder.

Third, it is true that Tymoshenko belongs, along with presidents Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko, to the old cohort of appointees of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s longest serving president in 1994-2005. Still, Tymoshenko may still be a politician different from them – not only because she is a woman. Tymoshenko was a minister under Kuchma, but she was also briefly incarcerated under her initial patron, in 2001. While Poroshenko was a minister under Yanukovych in 2011-2012, she was, during that time, again in prison from 2011 to 2014.

These detentions are by themselves not necessarily a recommendation. Yet, they indicate that Tymoshenko may not be quite of the same material as Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovych and Poroshenko – none of whom was ever arrested during their political careers (Yanukovych had been imprisoned for ordinary crimes, during Soviet times). Arguably, Tymoshenko’s two arrests as an opposition politician testify to the fear, among her opponents, of her resoluteness rather than to any exceptional misbehaviour in the Ukrainian context. Whether those qualities that led Kuchma’s and Yanukovych’s administrations to put her temporarily behind bars will be to the benefit of Ukraine once she becomes president, remains to be seen.

Last but not least, during the last months, Tymoshenko and her party have become engaged in a series of well-organised programmatic, so-called “New Course” conferences that allowed wide participation and pluralistic discussion. The relative openness of these large events was illustrated by bizarre incidents caused by unscheduled speakers taking spontaneously and embarrassingly the floor without any hindrance. What is more, these meetings featured content-rich speeches and interactive debates containing a large array of more or less innovative (if, sometimes, half-baked) approaches as well as involving a whole number of activists and specialists not belonging to Batkivshchyna. In fact, the “New Course” conferences introduced so many novel plans that they are, in their entirety, difficult to digest even for seasoned political experts.

One may question, to be sure, the seriousness, realism and wisdom of some of the political, economic and institutional innovations proposed by Tymoshenko and her team. The Batkivshchyna team has, for instance, extensively, angrily and with much detail reacted to a scathing critique of the economic part of Tymoshenko’s “New Course” programme by some of VoxUkraine’s editorial board members. Yet, the mere fact that numerous concrete and detailed ideas for Ukraine’s future domestic and foreign affairs were timely developed, extensively presented, openly debated and already criticised is remarkable. This focus on political substance rather than mere propaganda slogans distinguishes Tymoshenko’s campaign – whatever one may think about its contents – advantageously from those of her substantively less ambitious, elaborate and clear competitors (and let me myself briefly participate in one such debate in Kyiv in the autumn of 2018).

None of these circumstances is a guarantee for a good Tymoshenko presidency and I am not campaigning here for her. Yet, given that alternatives to her victory are currently less likely, the above aspects of Tymoshenko’s biography can serve as starting points for a constructive discussion between her as well as her team, on the one side, and Ukrainian civil society as well as western actors on the other – if she indeed becomes president. Arguably, Ukraine’s person on the top will, in any way, not be quite that important any more as in earlier times. Ukraine’s formal political system has become more balanced and its informal mechanisms have become somewhat less patronalistic than before 2014. The ongoing decentralisation reform is gradually devolving power away from the centre to local communities and municipalities making Ukraine thereby, with every passing month, less and less post- or neo-Soviet.

Reforming Ukraine with the old guys 

Many reforms under Poroshenko have, to be sure, been driven not only and so much by Ukrainian politicians than by joint pressure on parliament and government, from national non-governmental and international governmental organisations such as the IMF and the European Union. This so-called “sandwich model” of reform initiation and implementation, in which the still corrupt state is sandwiched between closely co-operating civic activists (principally organised under the umbrella of the so-called “Reanimation Package of Reforms” grouping), and foreign donors, will have to be used also in the future – independently of who becomes the next president. That should be especially so in the likely case that Ukraine’s law on parliamentary elections will not be changed to apply already in 2019.

In such a case, the coming autumn proportional and majoritarian elections to the Verkhovna Rada will happen under the old electoral law adopted under Yanukovych and designed to facilitate political corruption. Certain positions on the closed lists of the competing parties will be sold to the highest bidder. In single-member districts, affluent candidates can purchase so-called “nets” of groups of voters ready to sell their votes. As a result, private interests will again heavily infiltrate law making and governmental processes. One wonders where the enormous amounts that Tymoshenko is currently spending on her electoral campaign come from and what they will mean for her possible future presidency as well as Batkivshchyna’s likely participation in government.

It would still make sense for both western diplomats and Ukrainian activists to explore already now whether and how much a possible future presidential administration and/or cabinet under Tymoshenko will be willing to support pushing reforms through an oligarchically-subverted parliament, corruption-plagued government and reform-adverse bureaucracy. One of Tymoshenko’s most consequential actions as newly appointed prime minister in 2005 was the reversal of the flawed privatisation and transparent re-privatisation of Ukraine’s largest steel-mill “Krivorizhstal’” which, as a result, became “ArcelorMittal Krivyi Rih.” While scepticism is always advisable, this publicly televised action 13 years ago could, in principle, also mean that Tymoshenko may be more serious about reducing oligarchic influence in Ukraine than Poroshenko has been since 2014.

Kuzio’s various articles seem to, instead, suggest that the West should shun or even stigmatise and isolate Tymoshenko because of her current left-wing populist stance, unrealistic social plans and seemingly unconstructive behaviour in parliament. Yet, vociferous anti-governmental rhetoric, public resistance to unpopular austerity measures and hyperbolic promises of quick future improvements are also not unheard-of behaviour among western opposition parties – as long as they are not in government. It is likely that Tymoshenko and her team will – in the same way western parties adapt to reality after electoral successes – significantly adjust their positions once they have obtained executive power. Given the narrow corridor of action any Ukrainian government currently has and, in the future, will have, Tymoshenko & Co. will probably more productively co-operate with the IMF and EU as well as other donor organisations than their current unrealistic electoral rhetoric suggests.

For the case of such a positive turn, western national governments and international organisations should not waste a possibly opening of a new window of opportunity. They should start studying Tymoshenko’s programme and reaching out to her team via, for instance, the European People’s Party channel. How exactly a Tymoshenko presidency and government will look like is difficult to predict, even against the background of her previous two terms as cabinet head during Yushchenko’s presidency. Too many variables have changed since the end of her last term as prime minister in early 2010. Yet, given the above peculiarities of Tymoshenko’s political career and her ambitious “New Course” agenda, there could be the prospect of a new wave of substantive political and economic changes that accelerate rather than hinder the transformation process. Ukraine is too important for Europe and the West to not pay attention.

Andreas Umland is a senior fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and the General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem-Verlag in Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press in New York. An excerpt from this article was earlier published with the Ukraine Alert of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, DC. The present text was, in Kyiv, first published by VoxUkraine whose editors Rostyslav Averchuk and Oleksandr Zholud kindly helped improving the text. For all remaining imprecisions and misinterpretations, the author alone is responsible.

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