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Tymoshenko’s populist multi-vector programme for the 2019 election

Yulia Tymoshenko began her election campaign first among candidates and has, according to estimates by different Ukrainian NGO’s, spent the most on it. Tymoshenko was in the lead in every opinion poll until February and she has a good chance to be elected president in the second round of the elections in the third week of April.

February 18, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Tymoshenko supporters at anti-government protests in Kyiv 2009. Photo: Oleksandr Maksymenko (cc) wikimedia.org

The outcome of the British Brexit referendum and 2016 US elections should make us cautious about opinion polls months before predicting the outcome of the referendum and election. Nevertheless, because Tymoshenko was in the lead in polls it is important to analyse seven areas of her election programme for clues as to what policies she would support if she were to be elected. These seven areas are:

  1. Commitment to Ukraine’s democratisation and the rule of law.
  2. Limiting the influence of oligarchs.
  3. Reducing gas and household utility prices.
  4. Supporting reforms demanded by the IMF.
  5. Continuing a unipolar or returning to multi-vector foreign policy.
  6. Negotiating peace deals with Russia.
  7. Bringing in China and reviving the Budapest Memorandum.

Firstly, there are fears Tymoshenko – similar to populists in the US, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere – is not committed to democracy. In 2008-09, Tymoshenko and Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych negotiated a grand coalition that would have kept them in power for a long time and was a factor in encouraging a large number of voters to back ‘Against All’ in the 2010 elections, because they saw no difference between them. Public distrust in Tymoshenko’s commitment to Ukraine’s democratic system is long standing and she has failed to overcome this question.

According to analysis by Rostyslav Averchuk for Vox Ukraine: ‘Post-Soviet presidential systems have indeed demonstrated the tendency for power to become excessively concentrated as many of them slided into authoritarianism and had the development of their parliaments and political parties stifled. Yet the “chancellor” system proposed by Tymoshenko would most likely result in an even higher concentration of power than the one that is possible, at least formally, in the presidential system. After all, the leader of the party with a guaranteed majority in the parliament would also become a de facto popularly elected head of state – and no other real center of political power would be there to check her powers effectively.’

Vox Ukraine continues, ‘As a result, were Tymoshenko’s ideas to be implemented, political power could become as concentrated as it is in the “super-presidential” systems in Belarus, Kazakhstan or Russia. Contrary to Tymoshenko’s arguments, this particular system would surely lack checks and balances.’

Tymoshenko’s policies are contradictory over whether she supports parliamentary systems (as in the EU) or presidential systems (common throughout Eurasia).

Secondly, although all Ukrainian political parties (even the Communists and nationalists) have been financially supported by oligarchs, at the same time all political parties during election campaigns have adopted anti-oligarch rhetoric. Petro Poroshenko even talked of ‘de-oligarchisation’. Although Ukrainian voters see corruption and removal of oligarch influence as priorities, at the same time they do not believe politicians who claim they will fight corruption and oligarchs. 

In the 2019 elections, Tymoshenko has large financial resources, as seen in her spending the most of any presidential candidate. Ihor Kolomoyskyy has said that he supports the election of Tymoshenko. Kolomoyskyy is Ukraine’s biggest corporate raider. Pryvat Bank, which was nationalized in 2016, money laundered 5.5 billion US dollars. In 2008, Prime Minister Tymoshenko gave Kolomoyskyy de facto control over the state oil company UkrNafta which gave him huge corrupt incomes until it was taken back by the Ukrainian state in 2014-15.

It therefore remains unclear how Tymoshenko can implement her election promise to change Ukraine’s ‘oligarch clan model of governance’ and fight oligarchs.

Thirdly, a prominent Tymoshenko billboard pledges to reduce the price of gas and utilities two fold. Certainly, household utility prices, low incomes and pensions and inflation are second only to the war in eastern Ukraine as concerns for voters. ‘We will reduce the price of gas by half, and this decision will be the first step of the new president. Accordingly, the tariffs for heat and hot water will be reduced, which will mean a significant reduction in utility bills,’ Tymoshenko said on the program “Pravo na Vladu” on the TV channel 1+1.

The only manner in which Tymoshenko explains how it would be possible to implement this election promise is to increase domestic production of gas and then provide this cheaply to the population. How the government will intervene and force private companies to sell their gas at below market prices is not explained. The only way this would be possible would be to return to using high levels of subsidies from the government which would increase the budget deficit or return to Viktor Yanukovych’s practice of asking Moscow for credits to buy Russian gas.

The three policies of government intervention, subsidies and foreign credits would represent a return to bad past practices. Prime Minister Tymoshenko attempted to intervene in oil pricing in 2005 with disastrous results. Although reducing gas and household utility prices are prominent in Tymoshenko’s election campaign it remains unclear how this can be achieved.

Fourthly, Tymoshenko and Batkivshchina have been the weakest supporters of reforms of the five ‘pro-Western’ factions in parliament and their criticism of the IMF has been as vitriolic as that coming from the Opposition Bloc. This is an important factor to bear in mind as past actions and voting are an indication of future policies.

Some Western experts on Ukraine, such as London investment banker Timothy Ash, believe that Tymoshenko will become pragmatic if she is elected president. After his December visit to Kyiv, Ash wrote ‘Tymoshenko is likely to have to quickly moderate more populist political demands – rowing back from plans for gas price cuts, and to make meaningful management changes at the National Bank of Ukraine.’ In other words, Tymoshenko, like all populists, uses populism to maintain her appeal with her voters for the elections but will drop these after being elected.

Batkivshchina and Tymoshenko opposed practically every reform since 2014, leading to Vox Ukraine ranking them the lowest in supporters of reforms of the five ‘pro-Western’ factions. Tymoshenko is ranked a very low 330 of the 423 parliamentary deputies for her votes on reforms. The Opposition Bloc, Batkivshchina and the Radical Party have provided the lowest levels of support for de-centralisation – one of the most important reforms conducted since 2014. Will Tymoshenko continue to be a lukewarm supporter of reforms and a major critic of the IMF?

Fifthly, Tymoshenko and Batkivshchina are vehemently hostile to IMF and yet they claim to be pro-EU. The EU, US and World Bank do not provide financial assistance until an IMF agreement is in place. Tymoshenko has never explained where Ukraine would receive financial assistance if not from the IMF.

There is unease in Washington with Tymoshenko is a product of the lack of clarity in her domestic and foreign policies. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party has been unenthusiastic about reforms and has strongly opposed key changes that have been linked to IMF and US conditionality. Tymoshenko seems to want to have her cake and eat it by taking Western financial assistance without implementing the attached conditionality. Tymoshenko’s coolness towards the IMF is found with other leading Ukrainian presidential candidates, such as Anatoliy Grytsenko.

While criticizing IMF conditionality, Tymoshenko and the Fatherland party she leads supports EU membership. But, financial assistance by the US and EU is only offered after an IMF agreement is in place; therefore, Tymoshenko’s criticism of one organization and praise of the other are contradictory. Since 2014, the EU has given billions of Euros in loans and grants and last year provided 600 million Euros  to help stabilize Ukraine’s finances. The IMF agreed to a 3.9 billion US dollar assistance package at the end of 2018.

Anti-IMF rhetoric is coupled with a promotion of economic isolationism. Tymoshenko said ‘Ukraine should rely solely on its own strength, and not on external advice.’ Tymoshenko added, ‘If someone tells you that everyone in the world wants Ukraine to be a strong and powerful competitor – with its land, resources and the intellect of the Ukrainian nation – it’s not true. The competition in the world is tough and sometimes brutal, and nobody wants to raise our country, except we ourselves.’

Economic and political isolationism and opposition to listening to foreign advice is at odds with Tymoshenko’s and Batkivshchina’s goals of Ukraine joining NATO and the EU. During the process of joining these international organizations a prospective member is required to undertake detailed reforms and to allow Brussels a very intrusive intervention into an applicant country’s domestic affairs.

Tymoshenko’s contradictory politics certainly raises questions about whether her foreign policy would continue Viktor Yushchenko’s and President Poroshenko’s pro-Western single-vector or return Ukraine to former President Leonid Kuchma’s multi-vector foreign policies?
New polls show the first three candidates as Volodymyr Zelensky, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko of whom only Poroshenko includes the goals of NATO and EU membership in his election programme.

The sixth is an inconsistency on Russia, which has led to 28 per cent of Ukrainian voters to believe that Russia would like her to be elected. As shown in Sackur’s interview with her, Tymoshenko has a problematic image over her attitudes towards Russia – particularly whether she as president would negotiate another bad deal with Russia on the Donbas (like her bad 2009 gas deal). In 2008, Tymoshenko did not support Ukrainian and Western criticism of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and instead vetoed a critical statement drawn up by Hryhoriy Nemyrya and US political consultant Ron Slimp.

Especially during an election campaign with most candidates using anti-war populism, many Ukrainian voters are concerned that she would negotiate a bad peace deal with Russia if she were to be elected president.

The seventh question is related to Tymoshenko’s promotion of China as a partner in peace negotiations in the Donbas, which raised alarm bells during her December visit to Washington. China, which is a staunch defender of its own alleged territorial integrity in Sinkiang, Tibet and Taiwan, has sided with Russia over Crimea. Including China is part of Tymoshenko’s programme of reviving and widening the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to bring peace to the Donbas. As I have written elsewhere, the ‘Budapest-Plus’ formula proposed by Tymoshenko is completely unrealistic.

Why is Tymoshenko lobbying to bring in China into negotiations – a country which has always voted with Russia or abstained but has never once voted for Ukraine and against Russian military aggression since 2014?

Tymoshenko is not the only candidate in Ukraine’s presidential elections with nice promises and contradictory policies. But she is leading in the polls and therefore has a high chance of being elected president which is why we need to analyse her policies now, before election day.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.

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