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08 Oct 2007

Ukraine: Tymoshenko on top

Yulia Tymoshenko's wild ride from dismissal as prime minister two years ago to a stunning return in last week's elections makes her the woman of the hour, with speculation that she could be the next president.

By Karl Rahder in Mirgorod, Kiev

The Ukraine's ongoing political crisis, which began in April when President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved parliament, was inching toward resolution on Friday, 5 October, with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted in the country's general elections, the second since 2006.

As the three main political parties jockey for partners to form a coalition government, the most likely possibility is that former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will again form a coalition government with her once and future ally, Yushchenko.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored the elections under the auspices of its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), giving the Ukrainian government a passing grade for its conduct of the elections. Tone Tingsgaard, special coordinator of the short-term election observers and vice-president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, characterized the elections as having been "conducted in a positive and professional manner."

This election had been seen as not so much alleviating the years of gridlock and disillusionment after the Orange Revolution of 2004, but as a symptom of Ukraine's systemic political infighting.

Woman of the hour

One underlying cause of the continuing political drama that has plagued this country for so long is the cultural and linguistic cleavage formed roughly by the Dnieper River, bisecting the country from north to south. In the western regions and across the river in the north, Ukrainian is the dominant language, and the residents of such cities as Lviv, Lutsk and the capital Kiev tend to look to Europe as Ukraine's partner. Ukrainians in the west are usually seen as pro-American, and favor deeper integration in European institutions such as the EU.

In the industrial east and the south, including cities such as Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa, Russian is spoken by most people, who view Ukraine's close relationship with Russia as a critical component of Ukrainian identity. These eastern and southern regions comprise the geographic power base of the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, who took office in 2006 after forming a coalition with the Communist Party and the Socialists, former allies of President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party.

Immediately after the Orange Revolution, such an outcome was unthinkable, with the new president, fresh from his victory after three elections (the first election resulted in no clear winner, and the second was overturned by the Ukraine’s Supreme Court after massive electoral fraud was discovered), leading a liberal, pro-western coalition with his chief ally Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko, a lightning rod for Yushchenko's opponents and even many of his staunchest supporters, would not last long as the new president's prime minister.

One of the major stories since the revolution has been her wild ride from dismissal as prime minister two years ago to her stunning return in Sunday's election as Ukraine's most notable and perhaps most unifying public figure, and quite possibly the country's next president, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations in the coming weeks that will decide the next government.

As of Friday, with nearly 100 percent of votes processed by the country's Central Election Commission, the largest segment of votes went to the Party of Regions (PoR), a pro-Russian party led by Prime Minister Yanukovych, with 34.37 percent of the vote nationwide. This was down slightly from the previous parliamentary election, seventeen months ago.

President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense Bloc - a new coalition known by the acronym NUNS - garnered a bit more than 14 percent, virtually identical to Our Ukraine's performance in 2006.

The real winner was the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, known as ByuT, which took a 30.71 percent share of the vote, up by over eight percentage points over 2006. A coalition with NUNS is expected to give Tymoshenko enough seats in the Rada to make her the next prime minister.

Tymoshenko - who hails from the eastern industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk - made a point of campaigning in Yanukovych's power base in the eastern provinces. And she has benefited from a major image retooling, transforming herself in the minds of many Ukrainians from an intimidating and polarizing figure into what one admirer in the resort city of Mirgorod termed "our Joan of Arc."

As late as Wednesday, it was unclear as to whether Tymoshenko could form a coalition at all, since the Socialist Party of Ukraine - a Yanukovych ally - had hinted that it would challenge the final vote results in court, having failed to make the 3 percent national minimum that would give it seats in parliament. But the next day, Pravda had reported that Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz had surprisingly thrown his support to Tymoshenko.

By Wednesday, Tymoshenko had pledged to form a government with NUNS, but the court challenge by the Socialist Party of Ukraine threatened to drag out the political drama here that was inflamed in May of this year when President Yushchenko sacked his prosecutor general, an ally of Prime Minister Yanukovych.

The crisis has lingered over this and a number of other constitutional issues, and the election had not been expected to bring much in the way of resolution. But the results are now challenging those expectations.

Tymoshenko's strong showing may well transform the political landscape once again, re-assembling the forces that staged the Orange Revolution in 2004 and perhaps reconciling the revolution's two leaders, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

The president had sacked Tymoshenko as his prime minister in 2005 after she moved aggressively to break up the financial holdings of a number of Ukrainian oligarchs, violating Yushchenko's preference for a smooth and non-confrontational transition period.

A possible kingmaker

Although it appears that Tymoshenko can form a government, one possible wild card is the Lytvyn bloc, led by the controversial Volodymyr Lytvyn, former speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and long-time ally of former president Leonid Kuchma.

Despite his alleged complicity in the kidnapping and brutal murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, Lytvyn has proven himself to be a skillful survivor, and the speculation in Kiev has been that his party, with 3.96 percent of the vote, might play the role of kingmaker, siding either with NUNS and ByuT or with the Communists and the PoR to determine the makeup of the next government.

However, with the latest results in as of Friday, a BYuT/NUNS coalition seemed plausible without Lytvyn's participation.

Adding to the confusion were comments on 3 October by President Yushchenko, who stressed on a state visit to Berlin the necessity for compromise and negotiation that included all three major parties, leaving many Ukrainians with the impression that he indeed might consider PoR as a coalition partner.

On the same day, Tymoshenko ventured that the president merely "meant that it is necessary to conduct negotiations with the Party of Regions" rather than meaning to signal a possible coalition government with Yanukovych.

If such a deal were struck, Tymoshenko announced on her website that she would stay with the opposition rather than associate with what she called a "mafia."

Questioning Yushchenko's strength

After the election last week, protesters from a spectrum of pro-Russian parties such as PoR, the Communist Party, and the Socialists had established tent cities in a number of areas in the capital, including perhaps a few hundred protesters camped out in Maiyinsky Park and Independence Square, and a handful setting up tents at both the Central Election Commission and at the Maidan, the site of the vast tent city three years ago that launched the Orange Revolution and changed Ukrainian history.

Reports of protests in eastern cities including Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk were also filtering in as of Tuesday and Wednesday, although in the last few days these efforts appeared to be running out of steam.

Andrew Berkut, a 19-year old student at Kiev National University, was camped out with friends at the Maidan, and explained to ISN Security Watch on Tuesday that his only aim was to make sure that Yanukovych's voice was heard and to express his support for PoR.

As for Yushchenko, he echoed a view held by many Ukrainians, both pro-US and pro-Russian. "Yushchenko is a nice guy," Berkut acknowledged, "but he doesn't know how to rule, he doesn't have the strength necessary to be president."

Sacking Tymoshenko in 2005 was something he approved of, Berkut said, but since then Yushchenko had failed to take command. "He really shouldn't be president."

A proposed referendum on making Russian the country's official second language - a measure favored by many in the PoR - was, surprisingly, something that Berkut was against. "If you want to speak Russian, then speak Russian. No one is going to stop you. But we are all Ukrainians. We should have one official language, not two."

The ongoing crisis here has also been perpetuated by the deal made by Yushchenko just as the Orange Revolution achieved victory in December of 2004. As negotiations continued with the Verkhovna Rada, Yushchenko made a number of concessions that robbed the office of the president of powers that were placed in the hands of parliament, a decision that has continued to haunt him.

Many analysts agree that with his strong hand at the time, Yushchenko could have refused to make concessions, and this has contributed to the perception that he is perhaps too conciliatory to be an effective president.

Still time for surprises

There is still ample time left for surprises and shifting alliances, with a constitutionally mandated deadline of one month after the first session of the new parliament for the formation of a new government.

In any case, Tymoshenko is being mentioned by Ukrainian media as not just the woman of the hour, but quite possibly the Ukraine's next president. That election is due to take place in January of 2010.

Finally, the Russian state-owned energy monopoly Gazprom threatened two days after the 30 September elections to reduce natural gas shipments to Ukraine if a US$1.3 billion debt were not settled this month.

Gazprom has denied that the warning has any connection with the likely pro-Western government headed by Tymoshenko. Failure to agree on the balance due may well trigger a repeat of the energy crisis of January 2006, when gas supplies were cut off by Gazprom after a payment dispute.


Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

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