Leading Without Leadership

31 August 2012, 15:06

Ukraine has created a new tradition: celebrating the anniversary of the regime’s opponent imprisonments. Yulia Tymoshenko’s allies arranged a photography exhibition and released 365 pigeons in Kyiv and 365 red and white balloons tied together in the shape of a heart near the Ukrainian Railway hospital where Tymoshenko was being held. She was also sent 365 roses. Indeed, they put on quite a show for the media.

In reality, the atmosphere was a bit too festive. It has long been rumored that Ms. Tymoshenko’s imprisonment will prove beneficial to some opposition members. After all, she is becoming a mere symbol, and opposition leaders can speak on her behalf while she has no real influence on the developments within the United Opposition.


On December 7, 2011, the BYuT-Batkivshchyna parliamentary faction changed its head. Ivan Kyrylenko, known for his full loyalty to Tymoshneko was replaced by Andriy Kozhemiakin, an SBU general and Oleksandr Turchynov’s man. BYuT MPs explained anonymously that their faction would likely collapse under the pressure of “arguments” mentioned by Roman Zabzaliuk, a BYuT MP who allegedly pretended to have switched to the Party of Regions and uncovered their plans to weaken the opposition and win the parliamentary election (see http://ukrainianweek.com/Politics/43218 or issue #3(26) for more details).

This seems plausible, as Ms. Tymoshenko could not effectively run her faction or party from behind bars. Eventually, control was established over the BYuT-Batkivshchyna majority. Still, its achievements orchestrated by the Turchynov-Kozhemiakin tandem appear dubious. Firstly, their MPs de facto supported an election law that played into the hands of the Party of Regions. Secondly, they failed to arrange any visible resistance to the language bill sponsored by Party of Regions MPs Vadym Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov. Nor did they manage to neutralize Natalia Korolevska’s party project.

Notably, neither average members of her party nor most MPs knew her standpoint on all of these issues. According to some sources, she herself learned about the developments in her party after they actually happened. These included the replacement of faction head Kyrylenko and the passing of the election law that was convenient for the government more than anyone else. Moreover, Tymoshenko deemed her party fellows’ votes in favor of the election law “a mistake” and said that they did not follow her recommendations to “avoid sitting at one table with gamblers” during her meeting with Commissioner Štefan Füle.  

According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, Oleksandr Turchynov personally compiled nearly 55% of BYuT’s list in the United Opposition and Ms. Tymoshenko did not play a decisive role in the process. “Turchynov is playing his own game and cares little about Tymoshenko,” sources say. Serhiy Vlasenko, Ms. Tymoshenko’s lawyer, confirmed this when he stated openly that she had not seen the final list.

Insulted BYuT members who did not end up on the part of the list that will get through to the parliament say that Mr. Turchynov chose the candidates based on their personal loyalty to him and their contribution to the party budget. Unlike them, a group of people close to Tymoshenko  (including aide Mykhailo Livinskyi, Antonina Boliura and Yevhen Shaho, long-time allies from her days with Single Energy Systems of Ukraine) ended up below 80. As a result, they have no chance of getting into parliament.


Clearly, in a situation of its own creation, the government is ready to take all efforts to prevent Yulia Tymoshenko from being made into a hero like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader whose popularity and political weight outlived 20 years of house arrest.

However, the government has very few options. Even if it keeps Tymoshenko behind bars until the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and “leaks” new videos revealing her as a “cunning sham” from time to time, or blames her for all kinds of crimes in the distant past, it will hardly manage to damage her popularity or reputation in the world.

Public opinion in Ukraine and abroad is based on a firm belief that Ms. Tymoshenko is behind bars for one single reason: Viktor Yanukovych is afraid of her. The more the public is outraged with his rule and the nearer the 2015 presidential election, the more haunting Tymoshenko will be for him. Meanwhile, as an anti-Yanukovych figure, she will grow more and more popular among the opponents of the current president.

The question is whether the opposition will manage to convert this popularity into political support in the election under the current circumstances. The supporters of Klitschko, Yatseniuk, Tiahnybok and other well-known opposition leaders will remain loyal to their leaders if forced to choose between them and Ms. Tymoshenko.

The available opposition is reconfiguring itself to fit these leaders and the process has become irreversible. Ms. Tymoshenko can still return to politics, yet she will do so as a symbol of “popularity gained through suffering” rather than as an independent political player.

The beheaded Batkivshchyna party failed to survive as a united political force and even the members who remained in opposition were forced to adjust to the new arrangements between Yatseniuk, Turchynov and Klitschko. For every one of these members remaining in the opposition compromising evidence can be found linking them either to the administration or to some of its influential representatives.

Another plausible suggestion is that the government has found ways to influence the new leaders of Ms. Tymoshenko’s party and faction. Turchynov and Kozhemiakin do not necessarily get envelopes with instructions from the Presidential Administration before important votes, yet the impression is that they are forced to stay away from some sort of a “red line.” Perhaps this was the reason for their surprising behavior on issues that are crucial for the country and supporters of the United Opposition. The insulted BYuT members revealed examples of the “red line”: allegations against a relative of Kozhemiakin and the prosecutor’s warning to open a case against Turchynov. Both cases never evolved into anything bigger.

In any case, the year Ms. Tymoshenko spent in jail proved that the party still associated with her name is no longer hers. The longer she remains behind bars, the less motivation any politician will have to refer himself to the Tymoshenko camp.

Thus, the authority of the “Yulia factor” in society will grow for politicians appealing to the electorate in opposition to the Yanukovych regime. Tymoshenko will be the embodiment of firmness and consistency in the struggle against the current president, despite the well-known facts from the pasts of such politicians suggesting that they are ready to collaborate with the Presidential Administration. 

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