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Yulia Tymoshenko: A ghost of Ukraine’s past

Is Ukraine in need of a comeback by the “Gas Princess” and her not so transparent connections?

January 21, 2019 - Ariana Gic - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Yulia Tymoshenko at the EPP Summit in March 2011 Photo: European People's Party (cc) flickr.com

In advance of the upcoming March 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, there has been a recent spate of articles about why presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko will be good for the country. The rosy optimism about the politician once nicknamed the “Gas Princess” does not correspond with reality. Facts tell a very different story. One need only look at her current political campaign – reminiscent of Paul Manafort’s campaign for the Kremlin-aligned runaway president, Viktor Yanukovych – and her political track record to see that a President Tymoshenko would be disastrous for Ukraine.

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Ukrainians have already paid a very high price for inviting ghosts of the past back into their lives. It would be tragic if they did so yet again. In 2010, Ukrainians elected as president the man whose election fraud triggered the Orange Revolution of 2004. Voters had been successfully persuaded by Paul Manafort’s deceitful campaign strategy that the compromised Viktor Yanukovych was a transformed figure who would be good for Ukraine. The false narrative of a “transformed” Yanukovych ultimately collapsed under the weight of his pro-Russian and revanchist agenda, culminating in the 2013 EuroMaidan protests and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.

Tymoshenko’s 2019 presidential campaign bears a striking resemblance to the political game plan Manafort crafted for Yanukovych to return him to power after the Orange Revolution. In an Orwellian-like switch, like Yanukovych before her, Tymoshenko has been painted as a reformed leader (with a fresh new look to match), completely distanced from her previous political sins.

Lack of transparency

Tymoshenko is infamous for her oligarchic background in gas commerce, her anti-democratic methods of consolidating power and her incompetent “manual mode” of managing the economy exacerbated the effects of the 2008-2009 economic crisis resulting in a 35.6 per cent decline in Ukraine’s GDP and a 38 per cent plummet in the value of the national currency. Tymoshenko has had several criminal charges against her for bribery and embezzlement and persuasive accusations of corruption and tax evasion have been made in the last year arising from dubious sources of financing for her massive US lobby campaign. Her income tax declarations cannot explain her lavish lifestyle.

Most importantly, however, Tymoshenko is suspected of having shady ties to Putin and has held Russia-friendly political positions on issues of critical interest to the Kremlin. There a several examples, but the two standouts are her opposition to condemning Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia and her 2009 Moscow gas contracts which were hugely detrimental to Ukraine’s economy and security. Embracing the image of the good “opposition leader” against a “bad government”, Tymoshenko uses the same bag of political tricks that Manafort had crafted for Yanukovych in 2010.

The Yanukovych campaign strategy, which Manafort had crafted, achieved the critical objective of making people believe, contrary to reality, that the Orange Revolution leadership failed in its job of steering Ukraine in the right direction. Yanukovych’s party and allies devoted a great deal of energy and resources to cementing the narratives of “government incompetence”, “Western puppetry”, “destruction of Ukraine” and other talking points both borrowed from, and echoed by, Russian propaganda.

Yanukovych’s campaign capitalised on the sense of disenchantment with the pace of change in Ukrainian society. Manafort cast Yanukovych as a “strong” opposition leader who would bring “stability”, “manageability”, and “prosperity” to Ukraine. Yanukovych vowed to “repair mismanagement”, “eradicate corruption” which was “worse than ever,” and revive good relations with Russia “damaged” by the pro-EU and pro-NATO political course of the post-Orange President Viktor Yushchenko.

Just like Yanukovych criticised the Orange governments, Tymoshenko frequently and fiercely criticises every post-EuroMaidan government, regularly attacking with slurs like “mafia”, “regime”, “dictatorship”, and branding reformist policies as “genocide”, “extermination” and “impoverishment” of Ukrainians. The nature and extent of Tymoshenko’s destructive opposition tactics is the stuff of legend.

Authoritarian style

There are no red lines for Tymoshenko and her team in how far they go to undermine and discredit the successes of the post-Maidan governments, doing everything in their power to immobilise the government to render it ineffective and unable to realise its policies so Tymoshenko can position herself as Ukraine’s saviour.

She fervently attacked the government of ex-prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, which launched many pro-western reforms, and the former head of the National Bank, Valeriya Hontareva, who helped clean up the banking system, eliminating many shady financial institutions used by oligarchs as personal piggy banks (Tymoshenko uses the accusatory narratives of “scams”, “speculative scheming”, and “corrupt benefits” to discredit what many Ukrainian and western experts say is one the most reformed and independent institutions in Ukraine).

Tymoshenko persistently demands the dismissal of Ulana Suprun, the American-born reformist acting health minister who fiercely fights corruption and conducts ambitious reforms in the health sector; the reformist CEO of the state-owned energy giant Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolyev, who oversees the company’s transition to transparent management, and reorganisation according to EU energy rules; as well as Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman who is driving the country’s domestic reformist agenda.

However, in stark contrast to Tymoshenko’s reformist rhetoric, support from her and her political party for reforms is among the lowest in Ukraine’s parliament.  Tymoshenko routinely accuses the government of “counter-revolution”, at the same time mounting massive campaigns to derail the progressive reforms pursued by the government. She vehemently opposes energy, health care, land market, pension, and judicial reforms, to name but a few. She demands legislative moratoriums on the increases of gas tariffs; on the participation of private companies in Ukrainian Gas Transmission Network’s operations management; and on the sale of farmland – all of which will halt forward-looking reforms in those sectors.

It cannot be ignored that Tymoshenko tops the national rating of liars and manipulators. Her criticisms of government reforms have very little grounding in reality, more akin to well-designed disinformation campaigns. Tymoshenko’s massive disinformation campaign targeting health care reform consisted of such a large array of harmful manipulations and distortions that the Ukrainian ministry of health, and even Health Minister Suprun herself, were compelled to reply through a variety of publications and social media posts. In one of the “anti-fake” publications on the ministry of health’s website, the MoH condemned her campaign newspaper’s anti-vaccination disinformation as “a threat to national security” – a highly serious allegation.

Tymoshenko’s track record of purporting to support democratic reform while actively undermining it, and of her ruthless quest for power – from the planned secretive overthrow of reformist Yushchenko in September 2005, to the back-room rewriting of Ukraine’s Constitution to establish a 20 year-long power-sharing arrangement with Yanukovych in 2009 – can leave no doubt that Ukrainians should brace for the worst should she win the presidency.

Yulia of the people?

Tymoshenko’s populist radicalism is infectious. With her charisma, she is an unparalleled master of manipulating public opinion and capturing people’s imaginations with grandiose plans for a better future. But we should remember from her political biography that once she obtains power, Tymoshenko’s ambitious promises to change Ukraine for the benefit of the people are quickly replaced with the agenda of grabbing more personal power.

We must remain clear-eyed about Tymoshenko and her policies – ignoring who she is risks ultimately derailing the country from its western, pro-reformist trajectory. Inviting this ghost of the past to lead the country will take Ukraine down a regressive path where even the country’s independence and sovereignty will be at stake.

Ariana Gic is an independent political and legal analyst, and columnist. She has been published in Atlantic Council, EUObserver, Vox Ukraine, StopFake, and Ukrainska Pravda.

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