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Tymoshenko still hungry for power

This piece originally appeared in Issue 5 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

September 22, 2016 - Roman Romanyuk - Articles and Commentary


Yulia Tymoshenko is a heavyweight in Ukrainian politics. She has found herself in various situations since she entered politics. Despite the challenges she has faced, she has always found a way to advance her political goals. She was prime minister of Ukraine twice and her opponents have tried to put her in jail the same number of times. Nevertheless, Tymoshenko remains a prominent figure in Ukrainian politics. Her influence on the state’s decision-making process is now very limited because of a conflict with the country’s leadership. However, support for her has steadily been rising in recent months, in the same way that it has for her party Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”).

The only thing preventing Tymoshenko from turning the support of the electorate into real political influence is that there are no upcoming elections to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament). According to opinion polls, if an election was to take place today, Tymoshenko’s party could increase its parliamentary presence by a factor of three or four compared to what it has today. Calling an early election is now the primary goal of the Batkivshchyna party and its leader. However, since an early election would not be accepted by Ukraine’s Western partners, including the United States and the European Union, Tymoshenko is pursuing a very cautious line. On the one hand, she has sharply criticised the current authorities and on the other, she is striving to maintain normal relations with the West.

Tymoshenko returns

On February 22nd 2014, the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kyiv, heading towards Russia. On the same day, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new law releasing Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s main opponent, from prison. The general prosecutor’s office, which was controlled by the former president, had initiated several cases against the opposition leader which had ultimately led to her imprisonment. Even if Tymoshenko had won any of those cases in the European courts, she would have been arrested on other charges. On February 22nd, when Tymoshenko was released from prison, she was immediately shuttled to Kyiv to join the protesters in Maidan Square.

When Tymoshenko gave a speech from the stage that had been erected in the middle of the square, many politicians and public activists who were leading the protests viewed her as a representative of the old system. Tymoshenko was a symbol of the opposition’s struggle, but she also represented the system that brought Yanukovych to power. However, Tymoshenko did not see it this way. After two years spent in prison, she was keen to return to politics, preferably in a key position. Therefore, Tymoshenko’s name was listed on the presidential ballot in the spring of 2014. However, Ukraine’s western partners were sceptical. EU officials and US representatives even hinted that after Yanukovych, the country should be led by someone who represented a new generation.

Furthermore, Tymoshenko’s decision to run for the presidency did not go down well with party members. In the spring of 2014, a split was beginning to emerge in Batkivshchyna. It had been initiated by Tymoshenko’s long-time allies and most trusted colleagues Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Arsen Avakov and Oleksandr Turchynov. They didn’t think that Tymoshenko would succeed and thus advocated the need to support a “single candidate”, Petro Poroshenko. Furthermore, while Tymoshenko had been isolated from politics during her imprisonment, her former allies had managed to become prominent figures themselves. They did not want to return to the role of “junior partners” again.

The net result of all this was that Poroshenko won the election in 2014 based on 55 per cent of the vote. Tymoshenko came in second with nearly 13 per cent. This demonstrated two main trends. Firstly, this level of support reflected the impact she had had on the political situation in Ukraine after EuroMaidan. Secondly, the election result was the end of Tymoshenko’s first era. She had gone from a person whose release was demanded by the most influential global leaders to becoming into an ordinary Ukrainian politician.

Batkivshchyna’s final split crystallised during the parliamentary elections in August 2014. A significant number of Tymoshenko’s closest associates left the party and established the People’s Front as their new political project. The primary reason behind the split was the race for prime minister, a position that Tymoshenko wanted to once again occupy. However, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the EuroMaidan leaders, had similar ambitions. While Tymoshenko was in prison, Yatsenyuk managed to become an independent political player and gain the support of influential Batkivshchyna members. Therefore, Tymoshenko was forced to change the public perception of her as a politician from the old generation who was being left behind by all her young, progressive colleagues.

Electoral failure

In this way, a large group of young specialists, lawyers and engineers appeared on Batkivshchyna’s voting list. Moreover, Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot who had been detained in Russia since 2014, was also included in first place on Tymoshenko’s party ballot.  Nevertheless, despite these political manoeuvres, Tymoshenko was unable to secure any significant electoral success. Victory in the parliamentary election went to Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front which, together with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, won the majority of votes cast. The leaders of the People’s Front notably got the top government positions: Yatsenyuk became prime minister, Avakov the minister of internal affairs and Turchynov became the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council.

Tymoshenko’s party won a mere 5.7 per cent of the vote, which translated into 19 out of 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Therefore, the Batkivshchyna faction joined the government coalition. However, it always took an independent position on all policy matters. Tymoshenko herself took every opportunity to publicly confront Yatsenyuk and President Poroshenko. As a result, Batkivshchyna pulled out of the government coalition in spring 2016 and joined the ranks of the opposition. In doing so, Tymoshenko was able to boost her popularity by harshly criticising the authorities, although her influence over matters of state was significantly diminished.

Today, all key political decisions in Ukraine are made by several policy-makers. Traditionally, these include the presidential administration, the cabinet of ministers and the Verkhovna Rada. In the context of the undeclared war with Russia, the significance of the National Security and Defence Council has also risen, since it takes major decisions concerning military operations, the country’s strategy and how the huge defence budget is allocated. Tymoshenko’s main problem in this situation is that all of these positions are controlled by actors and people who are in long-standing conflicts with her.

The relationship between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko has never been perfect. Their disagreements go back to just after the 2004 Orange Revolution, when then President Viktor Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko’s cabinet in the autumn of 2005 (Poroshenko supported this decision). Tymoshenko revealed to the media that when she was trying to persuade Yushchenko not to dismiss her cabinet, Poroshenko came into the president’s office and called her political party “traitors”. This conversation proved to be fatal for Tymoshenko’s career in 2005.

No reliable co-operation

In 2014, as Poroshenko ran for president after EuroMaidan, casting himself as the “single candidate representing democratic forces”, Tymoshenko invariably called him the “single candidate representing oligarchs” in her public statements. She implied that Poroshenko, with a personal fortune worth over a billion dollars, negotiated a division of the spheres of influence in the country with other Ukrainian oligarchs. This statement was supported by information that Poroshenko, together with another opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko, had held a secret meeting in Vienna with one of the most influential Ukrainian oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash, before the 2014 presidential election. Allegedly, an arrangement was made that Poroshenko would become president and Klitschko would be made mayor of Kyiv. This is exactly how subsequent events played out.

This information was revealed after the 2014 election, during a trial in Austria where US authorities were trying to extradite Firtash to the US on corruption charges. Poroshenko is very skilled at bargaining with his opponents behind the scenes. However, he does not really like being publicly insulted.

Although Poroshenko is very sensitive to Tymoshenko’s continuous accusations, both politicians have shown that they are able to put aside their mutual insults and agree on key issues in critical situations. The most recent example of this was the parliament’s adoption of judicial reform, which was a matter of principle for Poroshenko’s team. Despite their opposition status, Tymoshenko’s faction agreed to throw their weight behind the new law.

Despite this success, there is still no reliable co-operation between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko on a regular basis. Moreover, Tymoshenko still does not have any real influence over the Ukrainian government. Although the first two post-EuroMaidan cabinets were chaired by Yatsenyuk, Tymoshenko broke ties with him following the Batkivshchyna split. Moreover, Tymoshenko’s party only had one minister in each of Yatsenyuk’s two governments and each was placed in a decreasingly important ministry: environment and sport.

When Yatsenyuk resigned in the spring of 2016, a new government was formed with Volodymyr Groysman at the helm. Groysman is believed to be a close ally of Poroshenko. Since Tymoshenko’s party pulled out of the government coalition before the new prime minister was appointed, there are now no representatives from Batkivshchyna in Groysman’s cabinet. The new government was based solely on quotas from the Poroshenko Bloc and the People’s Front.

Following the resignation of Yatsenyuk, Arsen Avakov, the minister of internal affairs, became the People’s Front’s key representative in the new cabinet. Moreover, it now seems that the government does not make any key decisions without his consent. Relations between Avakov and Tymoshenko are also tense, as he was one of the leaders who split from Batkivshchyna in 2014. For the same reason, Tymoshenko has no influence over the National Security and Defence Council, which is headed by Oleksandr Turchynov. Prior to 2014, Turchynov was considered one of Tymoshenko’s closest associates. He was the chief negotiator with former President Yanukovych regarding possible options for Tymoshenko’s release from prison. However, following her release, their relations deteriorated.

Recently, a transcript of a National Security and Defence Council meeting, held during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was published. The transcript revealed that a harsh quarrel had taken place between Turchynov and Tymoshenko where she had urged him “not to provoke Russia” and not to declare martial law, while he pushed for both.

Tymoshenko and the parliament

Since Ukraine’s last parliamentary election in 2014, the status of Yulia Tymoshenko in the Verkhovna Rada has changed substantially.Initially, her party was in the democratic coalition that came to power after EuroMaidan. Although the Batkivshchyna faction was the smallest, the fact that it cleared the electoral threshold after all its major figures had left came as a big surprise. As a matter of fact, the coalition could easily have adopted most decisions without Batkivshchyna’s participation. However, Tymoshenko turned this weakness into a strength. She seized the chance to publicly criticise the authorities, despite the fact that her own party was officially a part of them.

When it became clear in the early spring of 2016 that the governing coalition might disintegrate, Tymoshenko instantly announced that her faction would pull out of the coalition. She commented in the media that early elections could be the only way to deal with the political crisis. However, both Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s team understood that only Tymoshenko and the representatives of the former Yanukovych-supported government who constituted the Opposition Bloc would benefit from an election. For the country’s leaders, a new election would likely mean a loss of power.

Therefore, they tried to persuade Tymoshenko to return to the coalition. Given the situation, she tried to obtain some bonuses and put forward a number of social demands to the government. These were mostly related to the reduction of utility bills, a reduction in gas prices, etc. To put these demands in context, the government had been forced to increase utility rates in order to receive support from the International Monetary Fund. If utility rates were reduced, IMF support could be lost. Therefore, Poroshenko’s team labelled Tymoshenko’s demands “dangerous populism” and refused to acquiesce to them.

Subsequently, it looked like Tymoshenko had made a canny move by joining the opposition. The issue of reducing gas and utility prices has become a key platform for Batkivshchyna. Tymoshenko regularly participates in major Ukrainian talk shows and sharply criticises the government, accusing the authorities of deliberately overcharging people in order to line their own pockets. At first glance, Tymoshenko’s arguments sound very convincing. However, fact-checking research conducted by independent experts from VoxUkraine has revealed that in many instances, Tymoshenko is guilty of manipulating facts and telling half-truths. It turns out that most of the arguments advanced by Tymoshenko are used to portray the authorities as corrupt and incompetent, a situation she argues can only be changed by having an election.

Skeletons in the closet

In addition to the “gas argument”, Tymoshenko actively espouses the idea that the president is both connected with oligarchic clans and involved in large-scale corruption. She highlights the fact that during the last two years, Poroshenko and his political allies have not managed to combat Ukraine’s flagrant corruption. Furthermore, many from Poroshenko’s team are increasingly being accused of involvement in corruption scandals, including the president himself, whose name was found in the “Panama Papers” released earlier this year. Tymoshenko consistently exploits these facts in her speeches in parliament and on television.

However, she also has her own skeletons. Ukrainian media reported alleged co-operation between Tymoshenko and known oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Tymoshenko is also said to have connections with gas tycoon and Member of Parliament Oleksandr Onyshchenko, against whom criminal proceedings have recently been initiated. Investigations regarding his case are being carried out by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which was founded with the support of the West, and it is widely hoped the bureau will prove effective in combatting corruption. Onyshchenko is accused of embezzling almost three billion hryvnias (120 million US dollars) from the state gas production company. The NABU requested that parliament grant permission for his arrest and provided over 80 pages of evidence to prove his guilt. It is telling that soon afterwards, Tymoshenko stated in the media that the NABU is controlled by the authorities and that they are simply trying to collect Onyshchenko’s business.

Both major arguments advanced by Tymoshenko, i.e. social reform and anti-corruption, have so far yielded tangible results. There is a great deal of support for fighting corruption and improving societal standards in Ukrainian society. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to the most recent polls, support for Tymoshenko and her party is steadily growing. The only thing Tymoshenko needs in order to turn the support of the electorate into real political influence is an election. However, should she come to power, it is unclear how she would be able to reconcile her populist slogans with the rigid demands of the IMF.

Roman Romanyuk is a Ukrainian journalist with Ukrayinska Pravda.

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