Yulia Tymoshenko was the first among potential candidates to start the presidential election campaign and has, according to estimates by different Ukrainian NGO’s, so far spent the most on it. Tymoshenko is in the lead in the majority of opinion polls and has a good chance to be elected president in the second round of the elections in the third week of April.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum and 2016 US elections should make us wary of the predictive power of opinion polls. Nevertheless, because Tymoshenko is among the leaders in election polls, it is important to analyse six key areas of her election programme for clues as to what policies she would implement if she were elected. These six areas are:
- Commitment to Ukraine’s democratisation.
- Limiting the influence of oligarchs.
- Reducing gas and household utility prices.
- Supporting other reforms agreed with the IMF.
- Continuing a unipolar or return to a multi-vector foreign policy.
- Reviving the Budapest Memorandum and bringing China into it.
Firstly, there are fears that Tymoshenko – like populists in the US, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere – is not committed to democracy. In 2008-2009, Tymoshenko and former president, then the Party of Regions leader, Viktor Yanukovych were negotiating a coalition that would change the Constitution to elect president in the parliament, to prolong parliament term of service and thus allow dominant then Tymoshenko and Yanukovych parties to stay in the parliament and rule the country for longer.
This fear of her attempts at maximising power is echoed in in the discussion of her proposals for constitutional changes. According to the analysis by Rostyslav Averchuk for «VoxUkraine»:
‘Post-Soviet presidential systems have indeed demonstrated the tendency for power to become excessively concentrated as many of them slid into authoritarianism and had the development of their parliaments and political parties stifled. Yet the “chancellor” system proposed by Tymoshenko would most likely result in an even higher concentration of power than the one that is possible, at least formally, in the presidential system. After all, the leader of the party with a guaranteed majority in the parliament would also become a de facto popularly elected head of state – and no other real center of political power would be there to check her powers effectively.’
Vox Ukraine’s analyst continues, ‘As a result, were Tymoshenko’s ideas to be implemented, political power could become as concentrated as it is in the “super-presidential” systems in Belarus, Kazakhstan or Russia. Contrary to Tymoshenko’s arguments, this particular system would surely lack checks and balances.’
Secondly, although almost all Ukrainian political parties (even the Communists and nationalists) have traditionally been financially supported by oligarchs, during election campaigns all of them have adopted anti-oligarch rhetorics – e.g. Petro Poroshenko also talked of ‘de-oligarchisation’. In its opening sections, Tymoshenko’s “New Course” programme repeatedly puts the blame for Ukraine’s economic woes on its “clan-based oligarchic system”. Yet the “oligarchic system” is hardly mentioned in the section where solutions are supposed to be provided. Given the important role that “New Course” attributes to the influence of oligarchs, the absence of any detailed discussion of the ways to solve the problem is surprising. Even if we leave this criticism aside and assume that the solutions are implicitly included in the proposed actions, a closer look reveals that Tymoshenko offers no clear steps of how to reduce the impact of oligarchs on the state. For the oligarchic system to give place to the socially oriented market economy that Tymoshenko’s “New Course” espouses, there has to be a transitional phase in which any reforms that would curtail the oligarchs’ role would probably face fierce resistance from them. Avoiding an explicit discussion of the necessary measures and counter-measures, either in the “New Course” or her public statements, makes Tymoshenko’s promises to fight oligarchs less credible.
Thirdly, a prominent Tymoshenko billboard pledges to halve the price of gas and household utility prices. Certainly, household utility prices, low incomes and pensions, and inflation are second only to the war in eastern Ukraine among voters’ concerns. ‘We will reduce the price of gas by half, and this decision will be the first step of the new president. Accordingly, the tariffs for heat and hot water will be reduced, which will mean a significant reduction in utility bills,’ Tymoshenko said on the program “Pravo na Vladu” on the 1+1 TV channel. However, this sphere lies within the competence of the government, not the president, and therefore, if elected, Tymoshenko would be unable to accomplish this (unless she successfully changes the Constitution).
Even if we assume that Tymoshenko is able to influence gas prices (either by changing her Constitutional role or building a parliamentary coalition), Tymoshenko still offers only one way this election promise can be implemented, namely by increasing the domestic production of gas and then providing it cheaply to the population. Yet she does not explain how exactly the government will force private companies to sell their gas at below market prices. The state company Ukrgazvydobyvannia could increase its production but if it provided gas with a discount, this would be viewed as unfair competition by private gas extraction companies. The only other way to reduce the cost of household utilities would be increasing government subsidies to Naftogaz. The IMF and other IFIs would be very critical of such steps since this would return the situation to 2013 and would cost the state more than subsidies provided to poor households at the moment.
Although reducing gas and household utility prices are prominent in Tymoshenko’s election campaign, it remains unclear how this can be achieved.
Fourthly, Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna parliamentary faction has been the weakest supporters of reforms of the five ‘pro-Western’ factions in parliament. Tymoshenko herself is ranked 330th of the 423 parliamentary deputies for her votes on reforms. Tellingly, Batkivshchina, together with the Opposition Bloc, and the Radical Party, have provided the lowest levels of support for decentralisation – one of the most important reforms conducted since 2014.
If elected, will Tymoshenko strengthen her support of reforms?
While criticizing IMF conditionality, Tymoshenko and the Batkivshchyna party she leads support EU membership. However, financial assistance by the US and EU is only offered after an IMF agreement is in place; therefore, Tymoshenko’s criticism of one organization and praise of the other are contradictory. Since 2014, the EU has committed to providing billions of Euros in loans and grants. Last year it provided 600 million Euros to help stabilize Ukraine’s finances. The IMF agreed to a $3.9 billion assistance package at the end of 2018.
Anti-IMF rhetoric is coupled with isolationist statements. Tymoshenko said, ‘Ukraine should rely solely on its own strength, and not on external advice.’
Isolationism and non acceptance of foreign advice is at odds with Tymoshenko’s and Batkivshchyna’s goals of Ukraine joining NATO and the EU. During the process of joining these international organizations a prospective member is required to undertake detailed reforms and to allow Brussels to make strong demands for changes and reforms in an applicant country’s internal affairs.
Tymoshenko’s contradictory rhetorics certainly raises questions about her strategy towards foreign policy.
The sixth question is related to Tymoshenko’s promotion of China as a partner in peace negotiations over the Donbas which raised alarm bells during her December visit to Washington. China, which is a staunch defender of its own territorial integrity in Sinkiang, Tibet and Taiwan, has sided with Russia over the Crimea. Including China is a part of Tymoshenko’s programme of reviving and widening the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to bring peace to the Donbas. As I have written elsewhere, the ‘Budapest-Plus’ formula proposed by Tymoshenko is completely unrealistic.
Why is Tymoshenko lobbying to bring in China into negotiations – a country which has always voted with Russia or abstained at the UN but has never voted for Ukraine and against Russian military aggression since 2014?
Tymoshenko is not the only candidate in Ukraine’s presidential elections with nice promises and contradictory policies. But she is at the top of most of the polls and therefore has a high chance of being elected president, which is why we need to analyse her policies now, before the election day.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations