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2 June, 2011

The Ukrainian Opposition Should Not Gloat But Modernise Itself

The popularity ratings of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are falling dramatically

This is consistent with polls that show widespread disenchantment with the authorities, including in the home base of the Party of Regions, at the direction Ukraine is going, high inflation, growing gulf between elites and the public and widespread perceptions that the authorities are helping the oligarchs and big business while  forcing small-medium businesspeople to pay higher taxes.

 At the same time, the popularity of the two main opposition forces, Yulia Tymoshenko/Batkivshchina and Arseniy Yatseniuk/Front for Change, are barely growing. This is despite widespread public disenchantment, massive increases in household utility prices, collapse in support for Yanukovych and Russophile policies in education, national identity and foreign policies. Yatseniuk, for example, does not seem to have attracted voters disillusioned  by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Tigipko who received 13% in the 2010 elections.

Clearly, the situation in Ukraine resembles the period from 2002-2004 in only one respect, that is the high level of public discontent with the country’s elites and readiness of large numbers of Ukrainians to go out on the streets to protest. What is different though is more important, and this is the lack of credible and publicly trusted leaders.

In the three years running up to the 2004 elections and Orange Revolution public discontent was channeled by opposition leaders Viktor Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Moroz who had high rates of public trust. Polls showed all three leaders stood for change.

Today, Yushchenko and Moroz, as seen by their miserable results in the 2010 elections, are totally discredited. Tymoshenko has still to fully recover from her election defeat,  re-build her reputation and position herself as the leader of the opposition. The public today do not see Tymoshenko and Yatseniuk as agents of change and are more likely to say “A plague on all your houses”, believing them to be no better than other politicians only interested in self enrichment.

Ukrainian opposition leaders need to be more humble and admit mistakes.

Tymoshenko, for example, should be forthright about two policies she negotiated in 2009-2009 in a non-transparent manner that harmed her election chances. These were secret negotiations with the Party of Regions for a grand coalition and a gas contract with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Although the contract played a positive role in removing RosUkrEnergo from the Ukrainian-Russian gas trade she has never explained why she agreed to such a higher base price for gas than that in western Europe or why the transit fees Russia pays would remain  frozen and market rates would not apply to them (but only to the gas Russia sold Ukraine).

Yatseniuk, for example, has still to explain to his  voters why he gave away the 2010 elections and ran the worst election campaign in Ukraine’s two decade history. Specifically, why had he agreed to replace Ukrainian by Russian political consultants at the insistence of Viktor Pinchuk? Polls in spring 2009 showed that if Yatseniuk had entered the second round, rather than Tymoshenko, he would have been elected.

 Therefore, the opposition should not gloat about at the collapse in support for the Yanukovych administration/Party of Regions as neither Tymoshenko or Yatseniuk have been able to re-engage with Ukrainian voters after the 2010 elections.

In the West, electoral defeats lead to a change in leaders of political forces. For example, Michael Ignatieff resigned after taking the Canadian Liberal Party into its worst election defeat in May.

In Ukraine such resignations never happen as political parties are the private property of leaders. This can have disastrous consequences for political parties as seen by Moroz who refused to stand down as Socialist Party (SPU) leader after his 2006 defection to Yanukovych and as a result dragged the SPU and himself into political oblivion.

Because Ukrainian defeated political leaders are never changed they therefore have a more difficult task in re-building their images, re-connecting with voters, and presenting new, credible, programmes.

All of these steps are required in order to re-build trust among Ukrainian voters.

It is interesting that the poor image the opposition has in Ukraine is also reflected in how they are perceived in the West (and we are not just talking about Yushchenko). Tymoshenko has been successful in lobbying in Brussels because Batkivshchina is a member of the European Peoples Party.

At the same time,  Tymoshenko has not visited the US for four years and, apart for a short period of time from 2007-2009, she does not have US PR and lobbyists working on her behalf. US policymakers and experts believe that Tymoshenko should take some of the blame for the failure of the Yushchenko  presidency, which she has been reluctant to accept, and that she needs to present a clearer set of policies and alternative programme rather than merely being a “rabble rousing” critic.

To be fair, Tymoshenko has to address unfair criticism of  her image as a chameleon and populist, unfair because these two accusations can be also laid at the door of every other political force in Ukraine. Yatseniuk has been as much of a chameleon shifting from support for NATO membership as parliamentary speaker in 2008 to a new Kyiv Rus union as presidential candidate in 2009-2010. Yanukovych/Party of Regions have repeatedly supported membership of the CIS Single Economic Space when they have been in opposition only to then ignore this question after coming to power.  The same is true about opposing cooperation with NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme when they have been in opposition and supporting it when they are in power.

The same is true  on the accusation of populism. In the 2010 elections the most populist candidate, judging by the volume of promises he made, was Yanukovych – not Tymoshenko. But, the prize for the most populist billboard goes to Yushchenko who promised to put a 20% tax on limousines, dachas and yachts.

Yatseniuk is not perceived as a “politician” by US experts and policy makers and, worse still, he is seen as weak and a “Yushchenko-2.”  Surprisingly, the English-speaking Yatseniuk has not spent any time or resources on PR and lobbying in the West, rarely  visiting the US and Europe. I do not recall a single commentary written by Yatseniuk for any Western newspapers.

Tymoshenko has greatest responsibility to prove she can learn from her mistakes as current opinion polls show that she could (if she is not given a suspended sentence or imprisoned and thereby allowed to stand) enter a second round in 2015. In the 2010 elections she lost by only 3%. 

Tymoshenko should not count on being elected by winning the support of Ukrainians who vote negatively against Yanukovych (which will be many more in 2015 than in 2010). Tymoshenko did not have a clear, pro-European platform in the 2010 elections and to win in 2015 would require her to analyse her mistakes in 2010 and earlier mistakes in permitting deputies to join BYuT who have defected. She also needs to stop referring to “revolution” and the Arab world. Ukraine is both not Russia and Egypt.

Tymoshenko needs to take four steps. These include softening her abrasive style of leadership, learn how to compromise with others in the opposition, address (albeit unfair) criticisms of her personality (populist, chameleon, etc)  and, most importantly, understand that she needs not be seen as a “rabble rouser”  but as somebody with answers. Opposition leaders need to not criticize but provide alternative, ideologically based programmes. Tymoshenko, like all the opposition could learn from the success of reforms in Georgia.

Fatigue with both Yanukovych/Party of Regions and the opposition therefore exists among Ukrainian citizens and the West. This situation is dangerous for three reasons.

The first is because public discontent could lead to disorganized and violent civil strife. Without trusted political opposition leaders, as in 2001-2004, the growing public mood against the Yanukovych administration is likely to become unpredictable.

The second is what was not Kuchma but Prime Minister, and now President, Yanukovych who lobbied for a forcible response to the Maidan to remove blockades of government buildings. It was also Yanukovych, not Kuchma, who gave instructions for MVD spetsnaz to attack the Maidan on 28 November 2004. If these forces had been permitted to arrive at the Maidan there would have been bloodshed on the scale of Andijon in May 2005.

The third is that Kuchma could not extend his time in office as he had completed his constitutionally permitted two terms whereas Yanukovych will  have only completed his first term in 2015. In addition, the explosion of corruption by the Yanukovych administration and opening up of pandorah’s box of criminal charges means the current authorities will be afraid of being out of power. After all, if ex-President Kuchma and ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko can be criminally charged then why not ex-President Yanukovych and ex-Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov?

In 2012-2015, Ukraine will be in a transition between two elections and will resemble Ukraine in 2002-2004. The public mood by 2012-2015 though will be far more bitter than it was on the eve of the Orange Revolution. The unknown question is whether opposition leaders will be able to again channel discontent on this occasion towards a non-violent Maidan – as in the Orange Revolution – or will the actions of both sides lead to a different, less peaceful Maidan?

Ukraineis heading towards the most dangerous period in its two decade history. As in every semi-authoritarian regime, the opposition have a duty to provide a credible alternative to the authorities.

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