Ukraine Decides, second round: Part One

On Sunday 7 February Yuliya Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych go head to head in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, the first since 2004’s Orange Revolution. Andrew Wilson has started his blog up again. First instalment: A Difficult Week for Tymoshenko.


A Difficult Week for Tymoshenko

Hello again. This is a continuation of my blog from the first round of voting in the Ukrainian presidential elections. I’ll be updating it with all the information and analysis that you need to pick your way through the voting and its aftermath. If you have any questions or issues you want me to cover, send an e-mail to [email protected] or via ECFR’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

With only days before the final vote on Sunday, 7 February, Yuliya Tymoshenko is still looking for a game-changing strategy to leapfrog Viktor Yanukovych, who beat her into second place in the first round. Her campaign faces three main problems.

Firstly and most urgently, she has not been able to win the public backing of any of the major candidates knocked out in round one. At the moment, she has about as many friends as the troubled English footballer, John Terry. Arseniy Yatsenyuk (who won 7%) is still bridling at the way Tymoshenko trampled on his corpse when his campaign faltered in the autumn, and is urging his supporters to vote ‘against all’. President Yushchenko’s ongoing vendetta against Tymoshenko has not been interrupted by his miserable 5.5% in the first round. Yushchenko is still determined to make waves; by making Stepan Bandera, the most controversial figure of Ukrainian nationalism’s controversial 1940s, a ‘Hero of Ukraine’, and encouraging lose and delusional talk of prolonging his rule if the elections results in deadlock.

Other ‘Orange’ or nationalist candidates, like Anatoliy Hrytsenko (1.2%), and Oleh Tyahnybok (1.4%) are also refusing to back anybody in round two. In fact, the vote ‘against all’ is becoming a specific campaign in itself, backed by several famous intellectuals. Many voters will stay at home on Sunday, but the Ukrainian voting system also has a special box you can tick to vote ‘none of the above’ (i.e. voters actually turn up, but ‘positively abstain’). If this campaign takes off and reaches high numbers – 3% to 5% or more – it will be an embarrassment to whomever wins.

On the other hand, Yanukovych has already received the endorsement, albeit fairly luke-warm, of the Communist leader Petro Symonenko (3.6%). Businessmen close to Tymoshenko had been courting the Communists, but the not-so-red Ukrainian reds also have an oligarchic sponsor, Konstyantyn Hryhoryshyn, who is apparently miffed with Tymoshenko after he failed in his bid for the privatisation of the Odessa Port Plant last autumn, and allegedly hasn’t got his deposit money back.

The Chair of Parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn (2.4%) started private negotiations with Yanukovych immediately after the first round. All Ukrainian politicians have ‘sponsors’ and Lytvyn’s is Vasyl Khmelnytsky, an MP for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Khmelnytsky has several government contracts he wants to keep, while Lytvyn wants to keep both his own job and that of his brother who is head of customs and border control.

Third-placed candidate Serhiy Tihipko (13%) can still tip the balance. Tymoshenko’s courting of Tihipko is getting almost desperate. She has repeatedly offered him the premiership, but he no doubt remembers her earlier boast that ‘Ukraine will not know the name of the prime minister’ once she was president.

The second unavoidable problem for Tymoshenko is that she is suffering as an incumbent. The economy contracted by 15% in 2009. The fact that she is still in with a shout is remarkable, but her ‘Gordon Brown card’ is losing value as savage cuts are clearly necessary after the election if Ukraine is to get back on track with the IMF. If Tymoshenko loses, she will no doubt regret the fact that she stayed on as prime minister for so long. She could have gone into opposition when the economic crisis hit, and might be sitting pretty now.

One reason she stayed on is her third problem. Incumbency is normally a political  advantage in Ukraine. But Ukraine has changed – and changed for the better. The powers-that-be can empty the budget, but they are much less able to abuse so-called ‘administrative resources’ to make sure they stay in power. Tymoshenko has to stick to normal campaigning methods to close the gap, but they don’t seem to be working yet.

Yanukovych, meanwhile, has been able to shrug off a series of gaffes, such as his comment that “if she [Tymoshenko] is to be treated as a woman, let her demonstrate her whims in the kitchen”. Nor was he damaged too much by an attack by his former campaign manger Taras Chornovil, who described him as wooden, isolated and paranoid, surrounded by cronies and totally dependent on prompt cards. Yanukovych ducked out a planned TV debate, as he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Tymoshenko appeared on her own, and contented herself with the line “the important thing is that this empty spot will not become Ukrainian president”.

One indication of the way things might be moving came on 28 January, when in a surprise move parliament voted to oust Tymoshenko’s ally the Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. This could only happen because the Lytvyn Block, the Communists and several pro-Yushchenko factions in Our Ukraine joined forces with Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. Although Tymoshenko reappointed Lutsenko as deputy minister, the vote was a clear shot across the bows – a dress rehearsal for Yanukovych’s inevitable attempt to create a new majority in parliament and remove Tymoshenko as prime minister if he wins the election. So at least some MPs think hers may be a sinking ship.

But one private poll puts her 3-6% behind. The gap is smaller than it was. Americans are used to the idea of an ‘October surprise’ before they vote in November. Many Ukrainians also expect to see some rabbits jumping out of hats before Sunday; but the ‘undecided’ at least have already made up their mind.

For more…

Read Andrew’s blog on the first round of elections where he talks about the election’s big issues and reacts to the results.

For the press…Andrew is available for interviews. Click here for our press advisory.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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