Out of harm's way

The moral case for releasing Yulia Tymoshenko is overwhelming. But her imprisonment might be a blessing in disguise for the Ukrainian opposition, argues Anton Shekhovtsov.

Anton Shekhovtsov
7 June 2013

Those European leaders who connect the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement with the fate of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are doing Ukrainian’s democrats a huge disservice. No doubt, their subtle hints and explicit statements are driven by good intentions. Tymoshenko’s seven year sentence for abuse of power was clearly politically-motivated; and the reopening of the long-dormant murder case, in which Tymoshenko now appears to be one of the main suspects, vividly demonstrates the growing paranoia of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime.

No one can question the true nature of this regime. According to Freedom House reports, some time between 2010 to 2011, Ukraine moved from being ‘free’ to just ‘partly free’. The Economist Intelligence Unit registered a slide from ‘flawed democracy’ (2010) to ‘hybrid regime’ (2011-2012).


A heroine or Pandora's box? Tymoshenko's release might not be without unintended consequences. Photo (c) Demotix / Anatolii Stepanov

The premise of the EU’s principled stand regarding Tymoshenko is almost faultless in moral terms: Yanukovych’s non-democratic regime has imprisoned Tymoshenko because she was considered a major threat to the rise of the authoritarian rule of the Family. She must be released - otherwise, the Association Agreement will not be signed. Right? 

The truth, however, is that big politics should never be driven by short-term moral considerations alone. The EU’s position on Tymoshenko has revealved a political short-sightedness and the absence of a long-term strategy towards this East European country.

Freedom for one or the many? 

The first thing we must say is that the Association Agreement is not about Viktor Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko. It is about the political and economic cooperation between one of the largest European countries on the one hand and the Union of European countries on the other. The Association Agreement is about the political future of the Ukrainian state, the direction of its political, economic, social and cultural development. The political future of tens of millions of Ukrainian people should not be made dependent on the fate of a single person.

‘The political future of tens of millions of Ukrainian people cannot be made dependent on the fate of a single person.’

Subordinating millions of Ukrainians to the Tymoshenko issue is where the morality of the EU’s stand could so easily be undermined. European integration is one of the very few consensuses in Ukraine’s highly divided and polarised society. The cost of not signing the Agreement is extremely high: not only will the Ukrainian authorities most probably be made to seek political and economic alliances with authoritarian Russia, but many Ukrainian pro-democratic, pro-European citizens will lose heart and faith in the EU as the region's ‘guiding star’. This will play into the hands of a wide range of anti-democratic forces in Ukraine: right-wing extremists and neo-Soviet reactionaries. There is also a high probability of the ‘Belarusisation’ of Ukraine, i.e. the transformation of the country into an unstable pawn of Russian imperialism. This is obviously not a scenario that can contribute to any kind of pan-European economic security.

Splitting the opposition

Second, the EU’s position concerning Tymoshenko does not take into consideration the current political landscape in Ukraine. Of course, EU leaders understand there are two large political blocs in Ukraine. One is led by President Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, with the Communist Party of Ukraine aligned to them. The other is the so-called ‘United Opposition’ that, in broad lines, consists of three main parties: (1) Tymoshenko’s ‘Fatherland’ party, now virtually led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, (2) Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR, and (3) Oleh Tyahnybok’s extreme right-wing Svoboda party. What the EU leaders probably do not know is the impact that Tymoshenko may have on the United Opposition if she is released.

They should, perhaps, be reminded that in 2010, Tymoshenko, as Prime Minister, lost to Yanukovych in fair and democratic elections. She obtained 45.47% of the vote against Yanukovych’s 48.95%. Then, Ukrainian voters recoiled against Tymoshenko for the performance of her government and for the failure of the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’. Of course, voters punished the leading face of the ‘Orange Revolution’, then incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, even harder. He obtained a miserable 5.45% of the first-round vote.

‘Tymoshenko was as destructive in the ‘post-revolutionary’ phase of Ukrainian politics, as she was ever creative during the ‘Orange Revolution’.

One of the major reasons of the failure of Yushchenko’s presidency and Tymoshenko’s government was the bitter conflict that emerged between these two politicians. In her conflict with Yushchenko, Tymoshenko even went so far as to almost establish, in 2008, an alliance between her party and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. In short, Tymoshenko was as destructive in the ‘post-revolutionary’ phase of Ukrainian politics, as she was ever creative during the ‘Orange Revolution’. It was her government that proved unable to provide an adequate response to the 2008 global financial crisis, leading to a situation when only a multi-billion loan from the IMF saved Ukraine from a default. In one of the leaked Wikileaks cables, John Tefft, United States Ambassador to Ukraine criticised Tymoshenko ‘for her ... lack of a basic understanding of economics fundamentals ... Although Tymoshenko has painted herself as the heir to the Orange Revolution’s reform agenda, her economic platform signals her underlying economic populism’.

After Tymoshenko lost the presidential elections to Yanukovych, her popular support dropped drastically. According to opinion polls conducted in April 2010, only 26.8% of respondents supported her fully, while an astounding 68.6% of respondents refused to support her at all — depths of political unpopularity that not even Yanukovych has reached. Ironically, it was Yanukovych who saved her from political oblivion by (re)opening several criminal cases against Tymoshenko in May 2010, turning her into a popular icon of the opposition movement. 

This is not the case anymore. According to the opinion poll conducted by the Razumkov Centre in March 2013 (see Table 1), not only does Tymoshenko fail to match Yanukovych in popularity, but she is also now the least popular leader of the United Opposition. Perhaps even more disheartening – or damning – for Tymoshenko is that she is even less popular than Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far right Svoboda party.


Table 1. Ratings of major Ukrainian politicians, March 2013. Source: Razumkov Centre

The same poll shows the former boxer Vitali Klitschnko as Ukraine’s most popular politician today, and apparently the man with the best chance of beating Yanukovych in 2015’s presidential elections. At the 2012 elections, his UDAR party obtained 13.96% of the vote, and is now the third most influential party in the country. Unlike Yanukovych, Tymoshenko or many others involved in Ukrainian politics, Klitschnko is not a product the ‘criminal 1990s’. Obviously, he owes the large share of his popularity his sporting successes. But he also seems to have gained Ukrainians’ trust by offering a sensible platform, balancing centrist politics that appeal to very different groups within Ukraine's highly polarised society.

'What the United Opposition and – broadly speaking – Ukrainian democratic forces do not need is any further destabilisation. But Tymoshenko’s release would be exactly that'

Despite the relatively high personal ratings of opposition leaders – first and foremost, Klitschko and Yatsenyuk – the democratic opposition remains weak as a political force. There is little ideological homogeneity across the so-called ‘United Opposition’: pro-European democratic politicians must certainly feel uncomfortable alongside Svoboda, a party that enjoys the companionship of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany. The outcome of the early mayor elections in five cities in the beginning of June 2013, when the representatives of the Party of Region won in each city, cannot but alarm the United Opposition.

What the United Opposition and – broadly speaking – Ukrainian democratic forces do not need is any further destabilisation. But Tymoshenko’s release would be exactly that.

Tymoshenko’s lust for power has been acknowledged by a number of experts and politicians. Professor Viktor Pynzenyk, father of Ukraine’s post-Soviet economic reforms and former Tymoshenko insider and former Minister of Finance (2007-2009), informed Ambassador Tefft that Tymoshenko ‘was overly confident in her own decisions and believed everyone else [was] wrong' and that 'she simply wanted to consolidate power in her own hands’. Viktor Yushchenko may not be the best source of moral authority for Ukrainians, but his views on Tymoshenko were very similar. As early as in 2008, Yushchenko complained: ‘I am deeply convinced that it was human ambition that destroyed the democratic coalition – one person’s ambition, lust for power, differences in values and putting personal interests ahead of national ones’.

Imagine for one moment that Tymoshenko is released from jail and is allowed to take part in politics again. In contrast to the previous years, she will now be driven not only by a lust for power, but also by the all-consuming desire for revenge. She will also be working with a rating lower than that of any other three leaders of the opposition. To rise again, she may see the need to neutralise her competitors inside the opposition. She already did this to Yushchenko; she also used to call [Minister of Economy] Arseniy Yatsenyuk a ‘mutton’ and a ‘puppet’ to Yanukovych in 2008-2009.  The outcome of this mudslinging power struggle would be disastrous for the Ukrainian democratic forces. It was precisely the continuous internal conflict within the democratic camp in 2005-2010 that helped Yanukovych to become President.

In Ukraine, there are only two groups of people who would benefit from the release of Tymoshenko: her family/close friends and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. In time, no doubt, she will be released, and most likely soon after Ukrainians elect a more democratic president in 2015. But in order to elect a more democratic president, the opposition to Yanukovych needs to remain strong and united. And it is hard to imagine the release of Tymoshenko would contribute to this.


Thumbnail: Polit.ru

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