Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

January 21, 2011

With each year that passes since the fall of Communism, one might hope that Ukrainian society (defined in its narrowest sense to include only the elite – after all who else matters?) should be converging in their thinking on what form the Ukrainian nation state should take. What will be its values, its history, and what will unite the country?

 Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be so, as the first news stories of 2011 relate.

 On New Year’s Day a statue of Joseph Stalin was blown up by Ukrainian nationalists, and shortly after a court annulled a decree to posthumously decorate a nationalist leader from western Ukraine whose insurgent army supported Germany for part of World War II. President Yanukovych failed to congratulate the 5 millions of the Greek Catholics who also celebrate Christmas on the same day as the Orthodox; they live predominantly in western Ukraine which is an opposition stronghold.  Then intellectuals signed a letter that urged Ukraine’s president to end political oppression of oppositionists, starting with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (The former Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, and Ukraine’s ex-Interior Minister are already facing criminal charges). And to top off a busy week, the leader of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was killed by an unidentified attacker as he left his house in Odessa.

 Almost a year after his election, the wily 4th president of Ukraine may well be moulding the country according to his own blue-print, and excluding any credible opposition.

Let me explain.

 In the period after World War II, it was common to believe that industrialisation, urbanisation, and the strong centralist Soviet policies would erode ethnic or national characteristics. Many Western historians, journalists, and writers also concluded incorrectly that the nationality issue had been solved. For example, in the mid-1980s, a few years after my first visit to the Soviet Union, Colin Thubron wrote his now famous classic, Among the Russians*, which is described by his publisher as “A vivid account of a journey he made by car from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era.” Nowadays, it would be a considerable faut pas to refer to the locals of those countries as “Russians.” Each has a unique identity. And to give one example, the latest census data of Ukraine (2001) shows that more than one hundred and thirty nationalities and ethnic groups call Ukraine “home.”

 Neither of the first two presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were heroes of the people, and neither demonstrated loyalty to the idea of Ukraine as a nation above that of their own personal enrichment. To Ukraine’s credit, however, the transition from Communism was managed without the violence that has been a characteristic of other former Soviet states. And numerous challenges could have provided the tinder for a conflagration, but the Ukrainian skills of compromise, dogged determination, and expedient inaction enabled them to muddle through.

 As faithful sons of the communist system, it must have been difficult for those presidents to fully embrace the idea of a division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or to the concept of elections. Why a powerful person would base his livelihood on the outcome of an unpredictable event, such as an election, is an anathema to many Ukrainians who have grown up in a system where having power means shaping the outcome of events to your advantage. “Who wouldn’t fix the election,” they ask rhetorically, “if it was in their power?” But pushed by those in Ukraine who genuinely wanted a democratic system, and pulled by the lure of the European or American aid donations, the institutions of democracy did emerge. In reality, however, they had more form than function. 

 Then came along Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko. As personalities they were like chalk and cheese — Yushchenko, the articulate diplomat willing to compromise, and Tymoshenko, the determined, passionate popularist — but they found sufficient common ground on which to work together. As advocates of central and western Ukraine who leaned towards Europe rather than towards Russia, they appeared to represent a new option for voters.

 People realised that the presidential election of 2004 might, for the first time, offer a credible reformist opposition. The outcome of the “Orange Revolution” is, to use the cliché, history. With Yushchenko as the third president he brought in a younger team, less influenced by the values of the Soviet Union and with an average age of forty-eight years, compared with sixty-eight for the previous administration. This difference of a generation gave impetus to the idea that a fresh image of Ukraine might emerge.

 But, it was not to be. Social justice was a fundamental expectation of the Orange Revolution — that people should be equal before the law — but Yushchenko seemed to forget this promise rather quickly. Though the Supreme Court ruled that there had been massive electoral fraud, no senior figures were charged; in fact, they were promoted. His commitment to punish the killer and those who ordered the killing of the beheaded journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, came to nought; in part, because he allowed Kuchma’s Prosecutor General to remain in his post. Perhaps most incredulous of all is that Yushchenko’s would-be assassin – the person who disfigured his handsome face – remains free, and is suspected to be living a comfortable life in Moscow.

 Yushchenko behaved presidential from the start, and this was his downfall. He was top dog, but he rarely showed his teeth.  Instead of removing his opposition, or changing the game – the two main strategies for silencing the opposition in the game of post-Soviet politics, he traipsed around the world declaring that Ukraine was open for business.

 After 5-years of aligning first with Tymoshenko, and then with Yanukovych, all the while knowing of their indiscretions but doing little to stop them, Yushchenko was more compromised than a married man caught in bed with a lover. His weak strategy to unite the nation by looking to Ukraine’s past — to the defeats in battle and to the days of subjugation — for historical events around which to build a nation, failed.  Not surprisingly, given that different parts of the country have such different histories, it was seen as divisive and negative as anything done by previous presidents. His withdrawal from politics following his humiliating defeat in the 2010 election was no surprise.

 Yulia Tymoshenko also stood in opposition to Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 elections and achieved a creditable result. Her desire to be president still burns brightly.  Her signature plaited hairstyle and stylish appearance may no longer carry the novelty they did in the Orange Revolution but her relative youth, and, by implication, long political shelf-life, means she is now the only credible opposition force in Ukrainian politics.

 Whether she is any more capable of forging a nation state out of Ukraine than President Yanukovych is doubtful, but the question I want to ask is, will she get the chance?

 The shrewd president is unlikely to make the mistake of his predecessor. Newspaper stories have reported numerous legal transgressions committed by Tymoshenko during her volatile political career, and a determined president, with the full force of the state’s organs at his disposal, should have little difficulty in catching her out.

 The challenge of caging the determined, passionate popularist must be considerable. It would attract international attention and, probably, approbation, but the delight in some circles of having a version of Mikhail Khodorkovsky languishing in a Ukrainian prison cell, with barely a mirror and a hairbrush to occupy the long days, must be tempting.

* I offer a hat tip to Mr. Thubron whose title provided the idea for the title of my own book, Among the Ukrainians.

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