Two of the candidates in the highly contested Presidential elections in Ukraine next year, presented their ideas for the future at the annual YES conference. Together they proposed a vision reminiscent of Kuchma and Yanukovych.
Judging by the reactions of the audience and large number of participants and visitors at this year’s Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, Yulia Tymoshenko and Anatoliy Hrytsenko face major obstacles in presenting themselves as credible presidential candidates to Ukrainian voters and western experts and governments. Indeed, it was noticeable afterwards that although Hrytsenko hung around the outside coffee area, few came up to talk to him. Tymoshenko was smarter and left the conference. Both candidates are campaigning a third time for the presidency and cannot therefore present themselves as new faces in Ukrainian politics. This is especially the case for Tymoshenko, who has been a public political figure since 1996.
An old tale
Populist slogans were plentiful. Tymoshenko waved the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, promising that if she was elected she would revive it. She did not make clear how she would do so. Worse still, she continued to spread the misconception that it had provided security guarantees when in fact these were security assurances. Tymoshenko quoted the well-known (and excellent) book Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, but it was clear she had not read it when she said that the authors stress the importance of “efficient and good ruling authorities,” which is not the main argument of the book. Similarly, when Tymoshenko was asked about her high negative ratings she gave the odd reply that no candidate or party ever had 100% support in a democratic country.
Populism was also evident when Hrytsenko promised to restore Ukraine’s boundaries and build “strong industry”. He said that “there is no problem in the country that we cannot handle”. Both candidates, Tymoshenko in particular, had little to say about corruption and rule of law. Neither of them mentioned reforms they had supported in the last four years, giving the impression of believing that the reforms have not brought about any benefit. Tymoshenko described the last four years as a “fake success”, similar to those that had been touted by Soviet leaders in the USSR.
As usual, both candidates were very critical, but neither of them used the opportunity offered by the conference to present concrete policy alternatives. Trying to outdo the others in their display of patriotism, they demanded the return of the Crimea and occupied Donbas. They claimed to have plans to accomplish this and achieve peace on Ukrainian terms, but did not elaborate what those plans might be. This appears to be pure populism. No Ukrainian presidential candidate can bring peace to Donbas – only Russian President Vladimir Putin can end the occupation and war. Hinting at this fact, BBC Hard Talk journalist Stephen Sackur said to Tymoshenko “you are vulnerable on this one”. He was referring to the public perception that she is willing to make concessions to Russian demands. He asked Tymoshenko why Ukrainian voters “wonder about your relationship to Moscow and too-close interests in Russia”. He questioned her on whether the 2009 gas deal was a case of her “selling out Ukraine’s interests”.
Tymoshenko, like all populists, cannot admit she did anything wrong and called this fake news and pre-election fakes, a favourite tactic of US President Donald Trump. She defended the 2009 gas contract, despite the fact that it led to Ukraine paying the highest price for gas in Europe until 2014-2016, when Ukraine stopped importing Russian gas.
A tight race
In a poll this month, Ukrainian voters were asked who Russia would like to see as the next Ukrainian president. 46.5 per cent said Yuriy Boyko, 37.9 per cent responded Vadym Rabinovych and 28.4 per cent indicated Tymoshenko. This was alluded to by Sackur, which Tymoshenko rebutted by claiming that her imprisonment in 2011-2014 was proof she was not pro-Russian. But Russia and the Donetsk clan had eliminated their own pro-Russian people to gain or maintain power.
Tymoshenko has further problems: she frequently lies and criticizes reforms. Vox Ukraine reports that Tymoshenko has led their ranking as the biggest liar in Ukrainian politics since it was created in Autumn 2017. In that year the level of truth in her statements was a remarkable nine per cent, rising to a still tiny 20 per cent in the last year. Over 80 per cent of Tymoshenko’s statements are critical and she often uses statistics which are manipulated so that they do not say what was intended.
The Kyiv Post reported: “For all her charisma, the veteran politician faced an unsympathetic crowd. When Sackur questioned how she could call herself a reformist when her party has a distinctly non-reformist record, the audience burst into applause.” Tymoshenko’s speech was criticized inside the hall and outside during coffee breaks and lunch. The question was a response to Tymoshenko’s claim that she favours a path of reforms and that her “new economic course” was only possible if the system was reformed. There is a major contradiction in Batkivshchyna (the party headed by Tymoshenko) proclaiming a new course of reforms, while criticising Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko for the reforms they have supported. Are her proposed reforms any better and more compatible with European integration? Sackur asked about her staunch opposition to the demand from the IMF that Ukraine raise utility prices, and how as president she would cooperate with the IMF. Her response turned into a rant that went off tangent and ended with her saying her reforms would build a “happy, free, independent and wealthy Ukraine”.
After the conference, Tymoshenko launched a ferocious counter-attack against Sackur on Facebook which will likely be counter-productive. Tymoshenko cannot remove or whitewash the fact that the influential think tank Vox Ukraine ranks Batkivshchyna as the worst performing of five pro-western factions in their support for reforms. Tymoshenko’s message faces an uphill struggle in two areas. The first is the lack of a moral standing for Batkivshchyna criticising President Petro Poroshenko when his faction is ranked by Vox Ukraine in second place for its support for reforms and Batkivshchyna in fifth place. The second is that while Tymoshenko’s billboards claim to support EU membership, Batkivshchyna does not vote for the reforms required under the Association Agreement with the European Union. The reforms backed by the IMF are supported by the EU.
Hrytsenko was unwise not to make his speech in Ukrainian, as his English is heavily accented. His delivery was “staid” and “very technical with no charisma”, according to the Kyiv Post. Hrytsenko did not speak about national security, which is odd for a former defence minister and supposed expert on national security. Sackur asked Hrytsenko if his lack of discussion about national security was because of his poor record as minister of defence. Hrytsenko replied that he was “proud of this record” and dismissed criticisms as fake news. In 2014, Poroshenko offered Hrytsenko the posts of defence minister and secretary of the national security and defence council; he turned down both. Like Tymoshenko, Hrytsenko has never travelled to the Donbas front lines.
Sackur said that Hrytsenko provided a “confused message” and asked whether he was a “modern reformer or an authoritarian in making”. Hrytsenko offered no clarity when he replied that there was no contradiction between the two. The appointment of Viktor Baloga as the head of Hrytsenko‘s election campaign showed his desperation in finding organisational support. Baloga’s appointment would sharpen Hrytsenko’s differences with Tymoshenko as Baloga ran the anti-Tymoshenko campaign when he was Viktor Yushchenko’s chief of staff.
Hrytsenko said Ukraine cannot fight corruption if “we are not decisive” and “parliament is not decisive” because the “two centres of executive power are irresponsible”. Sackur asked Hrytsenko if he admired authoritarians, to which he replied that Margaret Thatcher and De Gaulle had left their countries in good shape. It is a pity Sackur did not ask Hrytsenko why he also praised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a recent interview.
Neither Tymoshenko nor Hrytsenko are genuine pro-European candidates. Tymoshenko attacks the IMF, her party has the worst record of the five “pro-European” factions in voting for reforms, and she leads the attacks on pension, health and land reforms. Hrytsenko’s support for a presidential system would return Ukraine to the Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych eras. Of the 27 post-communist states, those with successful democracies are parliamentary systems and those with presidential systems are autocracies and kleptocracies. Hrytsenko wants to transform Ukraine back into a presidential system. He does not explain how he would find 300 plus deputies to change the constitution, because his political party is a virtual structure and has never won seats in the parliament. A President Hrytsenko would be a recipe for political turmoil and instability as the parliamentary coalition, and hence the government, would be anti-presidential. Hrytsenko would then be tempted to rely on the SBU (the security services) and military which are under presidential control but would likely be thwarted by the government, which controls the interior ministry, which in turn controls the police special forces and national guard.
Thankfully, I am not a Ukrainian voter – although my father is. Tymoshenko and Hrytsenko, running in polls in the first and second or third place respectfully, had a great opportunity to deliver professional speeches with clear cut criticisms and alternative policies that would have shown them to be European politicians. They both failed and instead showed themselves to be part of Ukraine’s past, as populists with no policies, and potential threats to Ukraine’s democracy – certainly not pro-European.