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The Chocolate King and the Gas Princess
Posted on Apr 15, 2014
By Ivo Mijnssen
However, she also has a credibility issue: During the 1990s, Tymoshenko was one of Ukraine’s richest and most powerful people, earning her the epithet “gas princess.” She continued to conclude opaque deals with Russia over gas deliveries during her time as prime minister. The constant political infighting that accompanied her and Yushchenko’s reign did much to contribute to Yanukovych’s re-emergence after he lost the presidential elections to Yushchenko—and to the delegitimization of democratic and pro-Western ideas in Ukraine. Moreover, although the trial against Tymoshenko was certainly politically motivated, few doubt that she was involved in corruption—like virtually all other members of post-Soviet political elites.
Tymoshenko’s reception on the Maidan after her release from prison was less enthusiastic than she had hoped for. She should nonetheless not be discounted. Her party, Batkyvshchina (Fatherland), is the only pro-Western party with a nationwide network and a broad base from which to recruit political cadres. Ukraine’s current prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is one of the party’s leaders, and it also controls most central positions in the current government. Other candidates, including Poroshenko, do not have this kind of infrastructure to rely on. Moreover, Tymoshenko, unlike Poroshenko, is a gifted orator. Ivan Lozowy, a policy analyst in Kiev, sees Tymoshenko as Poroshenko’s main problem: “God forbid if there are debates—she is simply going to overwhelm Poroshenko,” he told Radio Free Europe.
The only other nationwide party, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, is currently struggling to recover from the blow dealt to it by the revolution. Yanukovych’s closeness to the Russian government, his corruption and his escape have ruled him out as a potential candidate and affected his party’s credibility. Opposition to Russia has become one of the cornerstones of any candidacy in these elections—because of the annexation of Crimea and to a greater extent the recent clashes in the Eastern Ukrainian cities of Slavyansk, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Russian political scientist Pavel Svyatenkov emphasized, “All candidates will have to present themselves as anti-Russian to a lesser or greater degree.” Andreas Umland, a German political scientist working at Kiev’s Mohyla Academy, told me that “Putin’s actions contributed considerably to Ukraine’s political nation building.”
Russia’s invasion has certainly weakened both pro-Russian forces and politicians from Eastern Ukraine, many of whom are seen as Russian stooges in Kiev and Western Ukraine. As a result, promising candidates like Sergey Tigipko, who came in third in the 2010 elections, prefer to run as independents. The official Party of Regions candidate is Mikhail Dobkin, the popular former governor of the eastern Kharkiv province, whose national poll numbers are in the single digits. The new Ukrainian government indicted him for organizing illegal separatist demonstrations. Although it is true that Dobkin authorized a violent crackdown against pro-Western demonstrators in Kharkiv and enjoys close ties to Russia, many commentators doubt that he is in fact a separatist. His political demands include greater autonomy for the provinces and opposition to the Association Treaty with the European Union. He has, however, repeatedly called a possible integration of Ukrainian territories into Russia “a disaster.”
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For Ukrainians in the country’s eastern regions, the current situation is indeed difficult—not least because of the Russian invasion. It is unlikely that a candidate with a political base in Eastern Ukraine will win the elections. The eastern and southern regions have become less important because of the annexation of Crimea; Crimeans made up approximately 5 percent of the Ukrainian electorate, and the peninsula voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovych. Without Crimea, the western and central regions decide who will become president. As a result, many of the legitimate grievances there—first and foremost the call for more autonomy in the distribution of funds and the elevation of the Russian language’s status in the country—will largely be ignored in the best case and attributed as Russian “divide and conquer” tactics in the worst. The fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is championing the cause of federalization of Ukraine—in principle, a widespread demand in various regions of the country—is certainly not helping.
Even if one assumes that Russia will not annex further regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, and the presidential elections can be held in Ukraine’s current territory, the country’s eastern citizens face a difficult future. A vast majority of eastern Ukrainians—more than two-thirds according to a recent poll—support the overthrow of Yanukovych, and only 24 percent of them see Russia’s annexation of Crimea as justified. Nonetheless, the presidential elections—because of western Ukrainian indifference and Russian meddling—will most likely leave them without a clear voice in Kiev.
The transitional government in Kiev, under pressure from Russia and from armed, possibly Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, seems to have realized this at last. Yatsenyuk traveled to Donetsk on April 11 to meet with regional leaders, indicating support for an extension of local and regional autonomy. Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Turchynov also addressed the possibility of holding a referendum on Ukraine’s state structure simultaneously with the elections on May 25. At this point, however, both the threat of armed clashes between the Ukrainian army and separatists and of a renewed Russian invasion makes it very much unclear whether these elections and votes can even be held at the end of May.
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