Resurgent Tymoshenko looks for Ukrainian reset with new elections

Resurgent Tymoshenko looks for Ukrainian reset with new elections
Yulia Tymoshenko let her hair down before bailing from Ukraine's ruling coalition on February 17.
By Nick Allen in Warsaw February 26, 2016

The gloves are off and the hair is down. Yulia Tymoshenko's recent and rare Rapunzel unfurling of her Ukrainian braid heralded her party's exit from the ruling coalition and shift into direct opposition to the government and by implication to President Petro Poroshenko.

In a national poll conducted in the week to February 17 by the Kyiv-based Gorshenin Institute, 15.8% of respondents said they would back the former prime minister and 'gas princess' in a hypothetical presidential election against Poroshenko, who narrowly holds the lead with 17.2%.

It's a strong position for someone who only scraped past the 5% barrier to get seats in parliament during the October 2014 elections, and it has clearly emboldened Tymoshenko to call for what almost everyone else, Ukraine's Western backers included, is intent on avoiding: costly new elections in a country depleted morally and financially by war and political chaos.

"To preserve the current status quo means instability in Ukraine - it’s a dead end for reforms,"  Tymoshenko, 55, said in an interview with Bloomberg published on February 23. "It will be honest to have snap elections. As a result, after two revolutions, we may finally get a real reform-minded majority."

The co-leader of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 says one reason for her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) faction leaving the coalition with another pro-Western faction on February 17 was backroom conspiring between the country's leaders and oligarchs to thwart a no confidence vote in Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his cabinet.

Tymoshenko and fellow coalition quitter Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv and head of the Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party, have rejected the coalition and government as paying lip service to reform while mostly working to preserve the old order of powerful vested interests.

"The [Batkivshchyna] faction considers it unacceptable to stay in this flock, which actually has no chance, because it doesn't want to carry out reforms, to defend Ukraine, restart our lives," Tymoshenko said on February 16.

Here we go again

Tymoshenko is no stranger to restarting her life. Under Ukraine's last president Viktor Yanukovych, the two-time former prime minister was jailed for seven years in 2011 for embezzlement and abuse of office over a 2009 gas deal with Russia. Tymoshenko backed by Western governments maintains that the conviction was politically motivated.

Freed in February 2014 after Yanukovych's ousting, she returned to public life in a poor physical state, having suffered from a spinal condition and physical assault by her guards during her imprisonment in Kharkiv. Although unable to muster much of a comeback at the time, Tymoshenko soon regained her feet and fiery oratorical form, before arriving at the current juncture in her career where her opponents are clearly getting anxious.

"Never mind that elections are likely to mean a break in relations with the IMF and other international organisations helping Ukraine, crippled by [Russian] aggression, to survive in tough conditions," Anton Gerashchenko, a parliamentarian from Yatsenyuk's People’s Party and adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, blogged on the Ukrainska Pravda website. "It's very simple - Yulia Tymoshenko wants to become prime minister of Ukraine a third time. Everything else is a fairy tale for those who still believe in them. Absolute power has always been dearest of all to Tymoshenko!"

Fiscal fluster

Gerashchenko may be right in the harm that more upheaval can do to Ukraine's fiscal lifeline. After the resignation of Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius in February over alleged corruption in high office, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said that without a major new effort to invigorate governance reforms and fight corruption, it was "hard to see" how Ukraine's $17.5bn bail-out package agreed in March 2015 could continue successfully.

Ukraine's bond market also reacted anxiously to the IMF warning and the parties' departure from the coalition. Investors sent debt yields above 12% from 9.5% at the start of February, although the jitters eased after Yatsenyuk shored up the parliamentary coalition with support from smaller factions.

But Tymoshenko seems to dismiss it all as a passing fluster, and tried to persuade US officials during a visit to Washington this month that some shock therapy is actually needed to get Ukraine's reforms genuinely underway. Rather than complicate the continued flow of aid and create instability, she told Bloomberg, early elections are the only way forward. "In several weeks the international community will accept that stability will come by rebooting parliament and the government, and not via the status quo," she said.

For now, Tymoshenko says she has no objection to a key Poroshenko ally, former Georgian president and Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, serving as interim prime minister. Having lost the presidential race to Poroshenko in 2014, it is open to debate whether she still wants his desk. But past statements show that Tymoshenko seems to think no role is ever too lofty in her political crusade: "There'll be no Ukraine but the Ukraine you want," she told the crowds in Kyiv after her release from jail in 2014. "And I'm the guarantor of that Ukraine." 

Writing on the wall

If history is anything to go by - and Tymoshenko herself says the parallels with 2005 are strong - Ukraine's president of that time Viktor Yushchenko offers some pointers to Poroshenko after his own drawn-out battle with his braided former ally.

"When Poroshenko stumbles on the threshold the first time, you will see her mission ... when the public authorities shout, 'we are for peace', she will provoke a war; when the public authorities offer a war, she will offer peace," Yushchenko told Ukrainska Pravda in December 2014.

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko warns that failing to clean up the political muck can have catastrophic results. "If we have an uncontrolled uprising in Ukraine, with the amount of weapons in the hands of people today, we can simply lose the country," she said after leaving the coalition.

It's easy to be cynical about Tymoshenko's populism and her swift recourse to lambasting those in posts she wants to control. But this should not negate acts of personal largesse either. This month, she appealed to Poroshenko to pardon two of her former guards sentenced to three years imprisonment last October for inflicting injuries on her in 2012.