Every September Russia hosts the Valdai Group, where leading experts and commentators are invited to talk with Russia’s leaders and share their vintage brandy. Hence the flurry of Russian news stories this time of year. Ukraine has no exact equivalent – which it should, as it is in dire need of a better international image.
But this year, the nearest approximation, the annual YES meeting, was moved to September, just after Valdai.
YES, which is funded by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, stands for Yalta European Strategy, and also hopefully someday, somehow a “yes” to Ukrainian membership in the European Union. The conference is held in warmer weather than Russia can normally provide, in the delightful surroundings of the Livadia Palace where Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt decided the fate of Europe in 1945. Delegates hung around the famous round table, hoping to sit in their favorite seat when nobody was looking – well at least I did. Yalta therefore has certain connotations as a brand name. But thankfully the audience was spared the easy cliche of every speaker warning of a “new Yalta.”
YES hosts practicing politicians, unlike Valdai, and regularly welcomes the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – this year’s equivalents being Poland’s Alexander Kwasniewski and Germany’s Joschka Fischer, joined by an impressive array of live video stars: Simon Peres, George Soros and the double act of Alan Greenspan and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This year there was the added benefit of a beauty parade of what was regularly described as “all three main candidates” for Ukraine’s presidential election – [President Victor] Yushchenko was busy being ignored at the United Nations, and chose not to rush back in time.
Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Victor Yanukovych had the difficult task of performing simultaneously to the Westerners in the audience and to the Ukrainian audience behind the TV cameras. Yatseniuk concentrated on the latter. In fact, he suddenly seemed to have repositioned himself as the Sinn Fein (“ourselves alone”) candidate, lambasting the EU and everything non-Ukrainian. His khaki-colored tough-talk was uncomfortably reminiscent of Michael Dukakis on top of a tank in 1988. Having said he would set up a new party before the election, Yatseniuk sidestepped a question asking what its ideology might be (a fair point) – as all the old ideologies were developed in the West before the economic crisis and did not apply “u nas,” or to us.
Despite leading in the polls, Yanukovych-2009 seemed temporarily to have reverted to Yanukovych-2004 and was impressively wooden. A tough question on the dangers that recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia posed for Ukraine’s territorial integrity left him floundering. He spoke in OK Ukrainian, but might have been more fluid in Russian.
Judged as performance art, Tymoshenko clearly put on the best performance. She said all the right things and said them well. She was even nice to the International Monetary Fund and its Ukraine head, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, who was sitting in front of her, which may not be the message a Ukrainian audience always hears. The potential volcano that could be President Tymoshenko could only be heard far below the surface.
Performance doesn’t shift the polls, although it will clearly help. Vitali Klitschko had a tough win over the last weekend. Tymoshenko may be ahead on points before the opening bell, but there are many rounds to come.
Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (www.ecfr.eu). His books include Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2005) and The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (extended third edition, November 2009), both for Yale University Press.
This piece first appeared in the Kyiv Post.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.