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How to talk about Ukrainian politics in the West

Hyperbolic warnings about allegedly disastrous consequences of a Tymoshenko presidency are demobilising western support for Ukrainian reforms and defence.

January 21, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Photo: Vadim Chuprina (cc) wikimedia.org

My recent article “What Would a Tymoshenko Presidency Mean?” for the Ukraine Alert of Washington’s Atlantic Council has caused indignation among numerous Ukrainian experts and journalists – some of them close colleagues and professional friends. With this text, and two longer outlines on VoxUkaine and New Eastern Europe, I was reacting to a series of harsh attacks on Tymoshenko in western outlets by prominent commentator of post-Soviet affairs Taras Kuzio. Responding to Kuzio’s comparisons of Tymoshenko with Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez as well as other, less controversial statements, I argued that Tymoshenko is leading in the polls for the presidential elections with a wide margin. Her party too is currently ahead in the polls for the parliamentary elections this autumn. Kuzio has since rebutted my critique, in English, in the Kyiv Post, and, in Ukrainian, on VoxUkraine.

Ukrainian reactions to a presentation of Tymoshenko in the West

Obviously, there are a number of problems with Tymoshenko and her presidential bid such as her leftish populist slogans or the financial sources for her expensive electoral campaign. Yet, the fact remains that the real choice in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections may not be between a young reformer, on the one side, and a representative of the Kuchma-period elite, on the other, but, perhaps, between incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and opposition leader Tymoshenko. The latter is currently far more popular than the former. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a famous TV producer, actor and comedian with no political experience whatsoever, had, by late 2018, become more likely to defeat Tymoshenko than Poroshenko.

Therefore, such was my argument, the West should start establishing a constructive relationship with Tymoshenko as the, so far, most likely future leader of Ukraine and with her team. As starting points for such a rapprochement, I listed some positive aspects of Tymoshenko’s possible rise in 2019 as her becoming the first female president in the eastern Slavic world, having built a functioning nationwide party and having recently conducted several serious programmatic conferences with (arguably, too) many more or less original political as well as economic ideas.

“Shut up!” was one of the more polite responses among the Ukrainian reactions, on various social networks, to the selective paraphrasing of my article on Ukrainian websites. The most common defamation, by dozens of commentators, was that my article had been paid for by Tymoshenko. These slanderers did not answer, however, the question why the presidential candidate would spend money on an article asking “where the enormous amounts of money that Tymoshenko is currently spending on her campaign come from”.

The libel concerning my alleged sell-out to Tymoshenko, and many less defamatory but also dismissive comments, misunderstood the purpose and context of my article in three ways. They saw it as 1) a contribution to Ukrainian rather than western debates; 2) an expression of a political position rather than of a policy prescription; and/or 3) a propagation rather than introduction of Tymoshenko for western audiences. Many unforgiving responders to my portrayal of Tymoshenko apparently either do not care much about, or do not comprehend well, the dynamics of western discourse and policies regarding Ukraine. They do not appreciate the possible after-effects that, in the Ukrainian context, well-received condemnations of Tymoshenko, such as Kuzio’s comparison of her with Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez, have in western capitals. Publicly warning Ukraine to not follow the path of Venezuela, in Ukrainian mass media would have been one thing. Painting such a picture in respected western analytical outlets is a different story.

Why Tymoshenko needs to be (re)introduced to the West

The substantive motivation for my articles on her was less any particular traits of, or opinion on, Tymoshenko than the results of a large October-November 2018 poll in Ukraine, by the Razumkov Center, Kyiv International Institute for Sociology, and Rating Group. These three reputed think tanks jointly conducted a comprehensive opinion survey interviewing around 10,000 Ukrainians. Thus they used data from far more respondents than most other polling agencies usually base their predictions on. This poll put Tymoshenko and her party far ahead of all competitors in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Apart from some other notable aspects, it also revealed an exceptionally high negative rating of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko who also heads an electoral bloc bearing his name (Bloc Petro Poroshenko, BPP) and scheduled to participate in the parliamentary elections in autumn next year. Over 50 per cent of the respondents said that they would not vote for Poroshenko, under any circumstances.

The survey, moreover, predicted a clear victory of Tymoshenko in a hypothetical second round of the presidential elections where she would have beaten, according to that poll, all potential competitors. At least, as of mid-November 2018, the most likely new president of Ukraine and the probable winner of the 2019 parliamentary elections seemed to be Tymoshenko and her Fatherland party.

Articles like Kuzio’s imply that this would be nothing less than a disaster for Ukraine which could become a second Venezuela. Many experts and journalists in Ukraine are less alarmist, but of largely similar opinion. Worse, such comments – when publicised in English or other European languages – fall on fertile ground among western diplomats, foreign entrepreneurs and international aid workers. These days, many external partners of Kyiv are, even without the bleak prospects that Kuzio offered, uncertain about Ukraine’s future.

European and North American officials, businesspeople, journalists and activists wonder about their continuing roles, impact and status within Ukraine after the elections. Not only are apocalyptic warnings such as those by Kuzio & co. as well other sceptical statements from within Ukraine on Tymoshenko fuelling western insecurity about the future of Ukraine’s foreign relations, developmental path and internal stability. Many Kyiv elite members’ explicit rejection of Tymoshenko are, moreover, in stark contrast to her nation-wide relatively strong popular support, in almost all regions of Ukraine.

What western actors may conclude from Ukrainian hyperbole

There may be, among some public critics of Tymoshenko, hope that the harsher they attack the presidential candidate in English, the more the West will either try to prevent her victory or attempt to neutralise the effects of Tymoshenko’s presumably calamitous presidency. Yet, this is not how the West’s international relations, in general, and interaction with Ukraine, in particular, work. Numerous Kyiv experts’ gloomy warnings concerning Tymoshenko’s rise to power may, instead, have the opposite effect in the West from what these critics might hope when voicing their apprehensions, in public or private, vis-à-vis European or American partners.

At best, the representatives of western states and organisations may, as a result, conclude that Ukraine’s relatively anti-Tymoshenko elite and pro-Tymoshenko population need to sort out relations among themselves. At worst, they will believe fully or in part the dark prognoses by Kuzio as well as by similarly inclined Kyiv experts, and respectively react or prepare. Contrary to what some in Kyiv may anticipate, such preparations could, however, not result in higher interest in or better engagement with Ukrainian domestic affairs. It may have the opposite effect of causing temporary disengagement from, or contemplating containment of cross-border instability emerging from, a soon-to-be self-destroyed Ukraine.

If indeed Maduro Number Two (Tymoshenko) is about to start ruling Ukraine in spring 2019, as Kuzio and others insinuate, western actors may not be asking themselves how to prevent or constrain such a disastrous turn of events. Instead, they may start calculating how to minimise the effects, on their own countries, of an East European Venezuela. Currently mobilised western political, economic and non-governmental actors, who take Kuzio’s gloomy predictions seriously, may decide to put their collaboration with Ukraine on hold, or to simply withdraw from Ukraine altogether.

Some actors are now adopting a wait-and-see approach until it becomes clear how things develop after the elections. If Kuzio & co. want to further postpone western investments in Ukraine they should continue their alarmist campaign against Tymoshenko. They may succeed to trigger more freezing of activities of western risk-averse partners in Ukraine. Continuing talk of imminent Kyiv chaos, Ukrainian decay, reform reversal, etc. may result in more western cautiousness and bewilderment. It can lead to a reorientation towards more predictable other investment destinations, by economic or financial actors, or towards equally burning, yet less confusing challenges of current world politics, by political or diplomatic actors.

Something similar should be said in regard to the narrative of Petro Poroshenko as a Yanukovych Number Two – at least, if such a metaphor is pronounced vis-à-vis western partners. There are today a number of Ukrainian civic activists and political oppositionists who have, over the last four years, become extremely disenchanted with Ukraine’s fifth president and his half-hearted reform-efforts. As a result, more and more reputed NGO representative and political journalists are starting to talk of his rule since 2014 as a repetition of Viktor Yanukovych’s reign from 2010 to 2014.

Such hyperbolic condemnation of Poroshenko via identification with Ukraine’s fourth president is being voiced in Ukrainian, but also in English at western conferences and websites. It can be as frustrating for foreign actors and observers related to Ukraine, as Kuzio’s comparison of Tymoshenko with Maduro and Chavez. If things are or will become as bad as these allegories suggest, it would seem to make little sense for the West to co-operate, engage and integrate with Ukraine.

Repercussions of portraying Tymoshenko as a state criminal

Even more subversive after-effects are contained in the popular reference to the infamous 2009 gas contract signed between Naftohaz and Gazprom, when Tymoshenko was Ukraine’s prime minister. Rather than explaining this problematic treaty as a result of enormous foreign pressures on Kyiv, some opponents of Tymoshenko call her behaviour in January 2009 as self-serving, or even criminal, if not treacherous. If one takes this narrative seriously, Yanukovych’s imprisonment of Tymoshenko in 2011 was apparently a justified measure.

Moreover, the EU’s immediate demand of a release of Tymoshenko in 2011 and Brussels’s staunch insistence on her freeing until she was finally released in February 2014 was then, so it would seem, either mistaken or duplicitous. Worse, Yanukovych’s postponement of the signing of the EU’s Association Agreement was thus apparently justified. Ukraine’s fourth president was in no position to follow-up on Brussels’s condition that Tymoshenko should be released for the mammoth treaty to be signed at the 2013 Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.

In this argument, the logic would be that Yanukovych was “defending” Ukraine’s rule of law while the EU was trying to use its leverage to get the political felon Tymoshenko out of jail. Only Vladimir Putin was, it seems, seriously trying to help the embattled Ukrainian rule-of-law-defender Yanukovych. The EuroMaidan uprising was apparently based on a spectacular misunderstanding: Yanukovych had been merely trying to preserve Ukrainian justice against the EU’s attempt to save Tymoshenko from responsibility for her deceitful actions. If that is indeed how the Ukrainian regime change of 2013-2014 came about, the EU may want to cancel its association agreement with Ukraine, reduce economic sanctions against Putin’s Russia, withdraw its financial help for Kyiv, make Yanukovych a candidate for its next Sakharov Prize, etc.

Two different arenas, two different audiences

The western public continues to have relatively little factual knowledge and deeper understanding of Ukrainian domestic and foreign affairs. Ukrainian-language internal political bickering within Kyiv and English-language foreign political communication about Ukraine’s upcoming elections are, therefore, two different showgrounds. Had Kuzio published his attacks on Tymoshenko in Ukrainian for a Ukrainian audience I would not have bothered to write a rebuttal. I may have, instead, simply enjoyed reading his overarching critique and bold comparisons of Ukraine’s 5.3-foot female presidential candidate.

Yet, Kuzio had chosen influential western analytical outlets such as Washington’s Atlantic Council website and Poland’s New Eastern Europe, as platforms for his strident attacks on Tymoshenko. He did so against the background of a dearth of other assessments of Tymoshenko as well as of analyses of her more and more likely (though, by no means, yet certain) electoral victory next year.

I fear that, in the West, some may – as a result of Kuzio’s assessments – see a possible Tymoshenko triumph in the 2019 elections as the beginning of the end of Ukraine. A possible reduction of such uncertainty was the sole purpose of, and – alas – only gratification for my, articles “What Would a Tymoshenko Presidency Mean?” for the Atlantic Council and “As Good as It Gets” for VoxUkraine.

Andreas Umland is a senior fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.



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