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The unlikely return of Yulia Tymoshenko

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The success of post-Maidan Ukraine depends on the effectiveness of the ruling coalition. Does Yulia Tymoshenko want to join the party or spoil it?

 

A long-time rival to Petro Poroshenko and critical competitor to Arseny Yatsenyuk, Yulia Tymoshenko continues to demonstrate her talents in post-Maidan Ukraine, targeting the soft tissue of her allies and responding to the growing dissatisfaction of Ukrainians. In the past two months, Tymoshenko has started channeling serious criticism against the government in power thanks to continued support from Batkivshchyna, her political base. 

On 7 June, Tymoshenko managed to organise the support of several thousand protesters in central Kyiv, demanding the sacking of the Cabinet – one of the largest protests witnessed by Kyiv since the days of Maidan. Though accusations to the effect that it was a paid action (still a common occurrence in today's Ukraine) have since emerged, the protest was well organised and its participants were sent – in many cases – by regional party units of Batkivshchyna.

Internal opposition

Elected in October 2014, the current Ukrainian parliament has managed to create an unprecedentedly large coalition. Formally, the five-party coalition has over 300 votes, which makes it possible for President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk to change the constitution and push through a desperately needed package of reforms.

The coalition assigned all the parliamentary committees to representatives from the five parties, leaving opposition groups little room for influence. With each passing week, the coalition demonstrates its loyalty to the task of reforms and passes laws quickly, rarely giving time for MPs to read them. It looks to be almost the ideal situation forl the cause of reform.

But the dynamics of voting shows that, after two months of mass voting at the end of 2014, the coalition's voting capacity has now fallen 230-240 votes. Given that a majority in the Verkhovna Rada equals 226 votes, these votes are still enough to pass laws. But this situation also indicates that the coalition's unity is slipping.

How has it happened that pro-Maidan political elites are losing unity once again, and repeating the shame of 2005?

The coalition has, it seems, created its own internal opposition. But rather than Opposition Bloc, the party formed from the debris of the Party of Regions, and several small MP groups, this opposition is led by Tymoshenko, leader of Batkivshchyna – a member of the ruling coalition alongside Petro Poroshenko Bloc, People's Front, Samopomich and the Radical Party.

Pani Yulia continues to demonstrate her talents in post-Maidan Ukraine, targeting the soft tissue of her allies

An ingenious opposition leader (2001-2004, 2005-2007, 2010-2014), a failing majority leader forerunner (2005, 2007-2010) and one of the best orators from among post-Soviet Ukrainian politicians, Tymoshenko was bitterly missed by many of us standing on Maidan. We remembered her abilities to communicate with the opponents of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and effectively respond to the militia terror.

Yet when she came to the stage on Maidan on 22 February 2014, sick and tired after more than two years in prison, Yulia failed to repeat her success of March 2001. That was the day when she left jail, a humble but brave businesswoman facing up to the emerging autocrat Kuchma, who had had Tymoshenko arrested on charges of forgery and smuggling. Allegedly, she had illegally transferred one billion dollars out of Ukraine and bribed Pavlo Lazarenko, Kuchma's former prime minister and opposition figure of the time. Indeed, Lazarenko had assisted Tymoshenko's meteoric rise in forming United Energy Systems of Ukraine in the mid-1990s.

In June 2011, Tymoshenko was charged with embezzlement and abuse of power. (c) Anatolii Stepanov / Demotix.The image of the unjustly imprisoned 'Gas Princess' gave Tymoshenko's confusing and often contradictory political career a kick start. Thirteen years later, this miracle failed to repeat itself.

Times have changed

Ukrainians have considerably changed after Euromaidan. And Tymoshenko has had trouble finding not only the right words, but even the right tone to take charge of a deeply traumatised society.

I remember a very negative reaction among the pro-Maidan activists following Tymoshenko's first words after release: 'Do you remember who made this revolution possible?'

With bodies on Maidan still waiting to be buried, Tymoshenko's references to her own achievements were insulting. Her speech on the Maidan stage was too emotional, too well expressed and too misguided. Her former allies, Yatsenyuk and Turchynov, avoided communicating with her during the critical period of power division at the end of February 2014. A political giant of pre-Maidan Ukraine, in February 2014, Tymoshenko had lost her political capital.

Tymoshenko addresses Maidan participants, 22 February 2014. CC Wikipedia / Mstyslav Chernov.Though Tymoshenko tried to gain power during the short presidential campaign in the spring of 2014, she was excluded from the very start. Sources from circles close to Poroshenko and Vitaly Klichko, mayor of Kyiv, have spoken of talks behind the scenes back in March 2014. The participants of those talks, as now partially leaked by Dmytro Firtash and Sergei Lyovochkin, included Poroshenko, Klichko, other pro-Maidan politicians and oligarchs (foremost Firtash and Ihor Kolomoiskii). These were the talks that probably led to Poroshenko's victory in a manner all too familiar: Poroshenko's major competitors in the form of Klichko and Yatsenyuk did not take part in the presidential elections, and Poroshenko was elected in the first round.

Excluded from the talks that were critical for the restoration of political order in Ukraine, Tymoshenko's presidential campaign harked back to the Orange Revolution in terms of message.

She was right about taking aim at the oligarchs as the major enemy of Ukrainian democracy. Yet she was wrong about the readiness of Ukrainians to hear that bitter truth. Patriotic oligarchs – with Kolomoisky taking the lead – became heroes in fighting the separatist threat in the regions of south-east Ukraine. Moreover, her campaign's anti-corruption slogans did not tally with Tymoshenko herself, still remembered as the prime minister of the 2008-2009 Cabinet, which was far from transparent. Tymoshenko's deals with Kolomoisky's Privat Group and the Industrial Union of Donbas, her decision to take away budgetary functions of local governments, and hide information on Ukraine's economic crisis are still remembered by many.

Tymoshenko was right about taking aim at the oligarchs as the major enemy of Ukrainian democracy.

Furthermore, in both form and content, Tymoshenko has continued to make references to the Orange Revolution. But the majority of voters have long ago decided that the Orange Revolution was a fiasco, and this failure should not to be repeated.

As a result, Tymoshenko received 12.8% of support at last May's presidential election. Not only did she lose the campaign, but her leadership of Bativshchyna was left in tatters.

Reset

In March 2014, the Ukrainian party system was in ruins. New (and those who wanted to look new) political leaders tried their best to start new 'party projects'. Only Batkivshchyna, with its huge network and strong central group of politicians, carried over from the old order.

But Tymoshenko has nevertheless failed to preserve party unity after her presidential defeat. Following extended talks with Oleksandr Turchynov and Yatsenyuk in summer 2014, Tymoshenko did not approve their quotas in the Batkivshchyna party list for the up-coming parliamentary elections. And party leaders, such as Arsen Avakov, Andrei Paruby, Sergei Pashinsky, Pavlo Petrenko (as well as others) left Tymoshenko for National Front, Yatsenyuk's new political project. As a result of many miscalculations and internal divisions, Batkivshchyna barely crossed the 5% threshold for entrance into parliament in October's parliamentary elections, while their former comrades received the best electoral result with 22%.

Since defeat in October, Tymoshenko has disappeared from the public scene. Her small faction became a minoritarian – and obedient – member of the ruling coalition, receiving two ministerial posts and three parliamentary committees in return.

Yet Tymoshenko has not given up, it seems. Over winter 2015, she has re-built her regional party units, constantly meeting young and mid-career politicians from the regions with a view to offering them positions. She has stayed away from the conflicts among Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk and the oligarchs regarding de-monopolisation (particularly for Kolomoisky's Privat Group and Akhmetov's DTEK) over the past few months. Instead, Tymoshenko has launched a public campaign criticising Yatsenyuk for his 'inhuman' reforms.

A hero of the recent parliamentary elections, Arseny Yatsenyuk has lost his popularity. In May 2015, National Front was supported by 4.2% of surveyed voters. The Ukrainian public has labelled Yatsenyuk the primary reason of economic decline and a deteriorating situation in everyday life (communal services, exchange rate, roads, police, transportation). The bold promises of prosperity and military victory in 2014 have come back to haunt Yatsenyuk. Tymoshenko now polls at 7%, and Batkivshchyna – 15%. While Tymoshenko is far from Ukraine's most popular politician, she is beginning to capitalise on people's growing concerns regarding their economic prospects.

Tymoshenko greets WWII veterans on 8 May in Kyiv. (c) Vitaly Holovin / Demotix. Today, Batkivshchyna and Opposition Bloc are trying to expand their influence precisely on the basis of the population's protest feelings. But unlike Opposition Bloc, Tymoshenko has a strong party organisation with young politicians aiming to succeed in the upcoming local elections and possible early parliamentarian elections.

A window of opportunity

The current protests are connected with the dissatisfaction of post-Maidan Ukrainian society. After Maidan, there were expectations of good governance, re-division of power between the central government and local authorities, diminishment of corruption and the restoration of security.

But a year after presidential elections and 18 months after the start of reforms by self-declared 'kamikadze' Arseny Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian state has continued to create problems for its citizens, rather than helping to solve them. Constitutional reform (including decentralisation) is consistently delayed by the competition between champions of the pro-presidential and pro-parliamentary system. The promise of decentralisation remains a fantasy, while the appointment of governors reminds one more and more of the imperial practice of namestnichestvo – parachuting people aligned with central government into regions, where they bear no responsibility save to their central masters.

In everyday life, bribery and nepotism are still commonplace. And there seems no hope to ending the war in the east, despite promises of victory made by Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. However, the political and economic pluralism does seem to be enjoyed by the majority of Ukrainians; and this creates momentum for an able populist to take the lead.

Tymoshenko is thus eager to ride the mounting wave of civil anger, and organise public protests. Indeed, in terms of protests, Tymoshenko finds herself in a privileged position: it is an unimaginable luxury for former members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions to subject the current government to ruthless criticism. Many of the latter are currently under criminal investigations.

The case of Sergei Klyuev, an MP from Opposition Bloc, who lost his immunity several days ago following charges on economic crimes committed under Yanukovych, reveals the limits of the opposition's efficiency. The Rada voted to remove his parliamentary immunity, and there are more cases being prepared against opposition MPs (and some members of the coalition).

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko has the privilege of being immune to these risks. She can criticise, for example, the Cabinet and its leader Yatsenyuk for increases to communal service charges. For now, she makes a point of being loyal to the coalition and keeping neutrality towards Poroshenko. But she is definitely turning into a member of the opposition and an alternative to the current prime minister.

Vendettas

So far, Tymoshenko has been successful in her vendetta with Yatsenyuk, who has recently started subjecting Tymoshenko to public criticism, blaming her for corrupt deals with Kolomoisky regarding changes to regulations governing Ukrnatfa's leadership back in 2009.

From what I can observe, these attempts to discredit Tymoshenko have not been successful. For many Ukrainians today, Yatsenyuk is not a figure to be trusted: the unreasonable promises of 2014 have diverged too much with the current situation in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is not a figure whose words carry much confidence for the majority of Ukrainians.

Compromising material (kompromat) on Tymoshenko from other sources is a riskier business. Forbes.ua recently alleged that, in 2010, Russia's Vneshekonombank financed her February 2010 presidential campaign with a $300 million payoff from a 2010 deal for a controlling stake in Industrial Union Donbas, one of Ukraine's biggest corporations. Tymoshenko is yet to truly counter those allegations.

Her popularity is on the rise, however, and kompromat detailing past sins will not have the same impact as sky-rocketing communal tariffs. Come local elections in October, Batkivshchyna's chances look promising, and perhaps the party will gain control of local authorities in central and western Ukraine.

And so, perhaps Yulia Tymoshenko has a chance at political rebirth, to return to the highest level of Ukrainian politics. She is eager to use the momentum from popular dissatisfaction with Yatsenyuk's reforms and the waning image of Poroshenko. She may also become an acceptable figure for the EU and Russia.

But the price of her victory could be the dissolution of Ukraine's grand coalition and the slowdown of reforms. Reforms that are already too late.

About the author

Mikhail Minakov is Associate Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and President of the Foundation for Good Politics, Kyiv. He is also visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies, Europa-Universitaet Viadrina and editor-in-chief of the journal Ideology and Politics

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