KRUK REPORT: Savchenko is a Ukrainian icon but can she score as a politician?

KRUK REPORT: Savchenko is a Ukrainian icon but can she score as a politician?
Nadiya Savchenko addressing Ukraine's parliament after her release from Russian captivity.
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv June 6, 2016

In Ukrainian, the word nadiya means hope. Before military helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko was released on May 25 in a prisoner swap from a Russian jail, where she was serving a politically motivated 22-year sentence on murder charges, Ukrainians frequently invoked the slogan: "We need Nadiya" (we need hope).

For us Ukrainians, this wasn't just only about Savchenko, but about our deeper need to believe that things can change for the better. While the servicewoman was in prison, we hoped that she would stay strong and help expose the real nature of Russian aggression to the world. Now, after her return home to Ukraine, we hope Savchenko will make a difference in Ukrainian politics. But will she?

Now 35, Savchenko immediately started work in the Rada, where she was elected a deputy for Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party in 2014 while still a prisoner in Russia. One could say that if she didn't exist, then someone would have to have invented her. A strong woman with a unique biography, she was a role model long before she was imprisoned by the Russians, having served in a peace-keeping battalion in Iraq and been the first ever Ukrainian woman to graduate from the Kharkiv Air Force Academy. To do so, she had to obtain a special permission from the minister of defence, since the prestigious institute was only open to men.

Savchenko also actively participated in the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 and was a member of a Maidan self-defence unit during the protests in Kyiv that winter. On one video dating back to the period of clashes on Hrushevskoho street, the scene of some of the bitterest street fighting during the Euromaidan demonstrations, Savchenko is seen talking to protesters and trying to stop them throwing Molotov cocktails at policemen.

A new chapter of her life began after she was taken hostage by Donbas mercenaries and later transferred to Russia. Savchenko was accused of killing two Russian journalists by directing shell fire onto them, and so began the long trial process against her.

The Kremlin's intention was probably to organise a show trial for the Russian public, proving the blood-thirsty nature of Ukrainians and fitting neatly into the propaganda narrative about the cruel Russia-hating junta in Kyiv. The story of Savchenko's trial might have been a masterpiece of Russian propaganda if they had chosen to convict anyone else than Nadiya. Her defiance and unbreakable spirit in the face of oppression turned the tables on the Kremlin, and the trial turned into a huge PR blunder for the Russian government.

It's not a coincidence that Savchenko became a symbol of Ukraine's resistance against the Russian invasion. Throughout her detention, Nadiya remained strong and forthright, dismissing her trial as a circus and her judges as Kremlin puppets, talking of a Russian invasion of Ukraine rather than a civil war, and forecasting that the lies and wrongdoings of Vladimir Putin will one day precipitate a Russian Maidan revolution too.

Even though the campaign to release Savchenko united millions of people all around the world, her return to Ukraine two weeks ago took everyone by surprise. That must have been especially true for Ukraine's politicians, who now have to adjust to the new political reality she has shaped in their midst. The same applies for Savchenko: she is starting a new chapter in her life and there are many reasons to assume it can be even more challenging than her imprisonment in Russia.

Good communicator

The day after her return to Ukraine, Savchenko gave a long press-conference in Kyiv at which she spoke for more than two hours, answered a mass of questions and presented a more or less clear picture of her views and plans for the near future.

Obviously, she is very emotional and there are issues that easily make her nervous. But more interesting is the way she talks. Savchenko is a good communicator and explains things in a straightforward way using simple words, making the topic understandable for everyone. She can be perceived as "one of us" by the ordinary Ukrainian voter, as the "salt of the earth" while speaking her mind about issues close to the heart of the average person, and yet she is also a national hero.

While that should be enough to make a successful politician, Savchenko will not have an easy time in Ukraine's helter-skelter politics. Her popularity is one her problems: it is hard for other politicians not to feel threatened by this popularity and her prominent international profile.

Secondly, Savchenko's candor will help her at the ballot box, and this in turn can create many foes among politicians who cannot control her. Savchenko doesn't mince her words and openly criticises President Petro Poroshenko for the lack of change in the country. She is no gentler with her fellow parliamentary deputies, calling them lazy liars. Moreover, Savchenko lacks basic knowledge about many subjects she comments on and airs personal opinions on these topics, which will resonate with other Ukrainians who aren't experts in politics or economy either. She is by default, but not necessarily by design, a populist.

One might say that's nothing bad, because most Ukrainian (and not only Ukrainian) politicians fall under this description. But not every politician's voice gets so much attention. Savchenko is a very uncomfortable political figure because of her opposition to the current authorities, her stubborn and strong character, and her iconic status. It is very likely that she will ultimately flop as a politician, but that is something that I would like to be wrong about it. Let's say instead that she has a lot to learn and needs to learn it quickly.

Obviously, this also doesn't mean things will necessarily go wrong for Savchenko either. Her voice is loud and gets taken into account. But the fact now is that what she is saying will quickly become the issue, and not merely who is saying it.

Savchenko already has support. She badly needs good advisors and a professional team that will help to manage her public performance. We also shouldn't forget that Savchenko is not the only public figure in Ukraine who is openly critical of the authorities and is not part of the political establishment.

Yes, Savchenko is a member of parliament, but she is also an outsider in the system. Ukraine has other political outsiders with a high level of public support. The first name that would come to mind are Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, former economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius, and ex-finance minister Natalia Jaresko – the group of "new faces" in the legislature. It doesn't mean all those people must unite in one party, but it is food for thought that the most popular politicians in Ukraine are those who have least power in the current political set-up.

Savchenko's appearance in political life might create the momentum for new parties to emerge. For example, if Saakashvili wants to climb to the top level of Ukrainian politics, he needs a party to take him there. The same is true for Savchenko: if she wants to deliver on the things she is promising, she needs a party to support her, since she doesn't fit into any of the existing ones. And it is unlikely that she will be a figure to unite all Ukrainians. Based on her personal style and her views, it is more likely Savchenko will be a competitor of Oleh Lyashko, leader of the populist Radical Party, or Tymoshenko, rather than a rival to Saakashvili and the technocrats from the former government.

International profile

There's also another realm where the pilot-turned-politician could benefit from her position. I can't help feeling that Savchenko has a stronger position outside Ukraine than inside. She is an internationally recognised figure with a story and authority. Savchenko could make a real difference leading an international coalition advocating the release of Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia.

In the coming months you can expect to see a lot of stories about Savchenko. On the one hand, there will be plenty of people trying to stay close to her and warm themselves in rays of reflected glory. Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have already played this game. At the same time, there'll be many others who will try to land her in trouble and tarnish her image, since they see her as an uncontrollable threat.

Nadiya Savchenko is an incredible woman, a true icon and one of the most remarkable personalities of our time – in that she is still a big part of our common hope. But she is also still  just a human being who will make mistakes, as she remains under-informed and will inevitably say awkward things. It is natural and understandable that once she left prison she started a new chapter in her life, one that will show us the new Nadiya – the politician. Some say that we will have a crisis of leadership in Ukraine. If this is true, Savchenko presents us with another challenge: is Ukraine or Europe ready for remarkable and strong leaders? Are we ready to follow someone who hits us with the uncomfortable truth, or would we rather stay with those who woo us with right words while doing the wrong things?

No matter what follows next, we shouldn't forget that Savchenko has already done a lot and we should be be modest in our expectations of her. Even if she makes mistakes, we can never accuse her of insincerity and self-interest. And for modern politicians that's already a lot.

Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Maidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.