Since the 2014 change of government in Ukraine driven by the country’s pro-EU aspirations, and Russia’s subsequent war on the country, the state of affairs in Ukraine has become a focal point for the European Union. Russia’s now half-decade long unlawful war against the country has also made a successful, western-oriented Ukraine critical for Europe’s security and stability.
The 2018 “Keeping Ukraine on the Reform Path” discussion paper (prepared for the EU Council by the foreign ministers of thirteen EU member states who are “friends of Ukraine”) said that: “For Europe, the success of Ukraine is of strategic importance.” The paper also called Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 “a test for Ukraine.” These statements remind us what is at stake for the European Union in Ukraine’s 2019 elections, particularly the presidential elections in March.
Recent polls indicate that reformist candidates – including the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko – could lose the presidential race to the populists, in particular to former prime-minister and gas oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko. As the populist politician who stands the biggest chance of winning, it is important to consider what Tymoshenko’s presidency would mean for pro-EU reforms in Ukraine.
An examination of her current anti-reformist agenda, her presidential campaign, and political track record expressly demonstrate that if elected, Ukraine’s pro-European reforms will be in jeopardy.
EU support for reforms in Ukraine
Over the last five years, the EU has been considerably invested in helping Ukraine. The EU and many individual EU member states have been aiding Ukraine to conduct ambitious institutional reforms to strengthen the country as it faces ongoing Russian hybrid warfare. The EU established the Support Group for Ukraine, and the EU Advisory Mission to back Ukrainian reforms with expert advice and resources, and supports reform programmes in decentralisation, public administration, energy, deregulation, and anti-corruption, to name but a few.
The EU has disbursed the largest ever macro-financial assistance to a non-EU country (3.3 billion euros) in low-interest loans to reinvigorate Ukraine’s economy which suffered a dramatic downfall as a result of Russia’s military aggression and its occupation of a large portion of Ukraine’s territory. The EU also backs reforms and the local economy in Ukraine via hundreds of millions of euros in grants through various instruments like the European Neighbourhood Instrument, the External Investment Plan and other programmes.
Importantly, Ukraine benefits from the Association Agreement, including the extensive Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DFTA), and a visa free regime with Schengen states, offering Ukraine new opportunities for increasing trade and attracting foreign direct investment.
The EU is invested in Ukraine’s success because in the last five years, Ukrainians have demonstrated that they share the EU’s vision of building a society based on the values of freedom, liberal democracy, rooted in the rule of law. In an ambitious drive to change the country, Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan governments have implemented far-reaching reforms in decentralisation, deregulation, public administration, public procurement, open data, prevention of corruption, judiciary, law enforcement, army and security, healthcare, education, social security, energy, banking, taxation, and other areas. The list of achievements is even more impressive considering that they have been taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s hugely destabilising hybrid war effort, and the domestic political vulnerability of the governing coalition.
The 2019 elections in Ukraine put the success of pro-European reforms in Ukraine at stake. As the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, noted in his speech at the 2018 Ukraine Reform Conference, if populist forces succeed in Ukraine, the impact could be dramatic.
Tymoshenko’s opposition to EU-backed reforms
Regretfully, the achievements of Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan governments have been largely unacknowledged and trivialised in Ukraine. Factors like the Kremlin’s concerted disinformation campaign, biased and unqualified media coverage, and fierce, often utterly irresponsible, domestic political competition, have contributed to creating an atmosphere of disappointment in society. Popu-lists like Mrs Tymoshenko – who promise Ukrainians “prosperity without painful reforms” – are capitalising on this to make political gains.
Since Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party quit the government coalition in 2016 to allow Tymoshenko to later run for president as an opposition candidate, she has significantly contributed to encouraging the sense of disenchantment. Tymoshenko routinely attacks reformist policies (many of which are entirely backed by the EU) branding them in extreme fashion as “genocide”, “extermination”, and the “impoverishment” of Ukrainians. Echoing the language of the Kremlin, she routinely maligns the democratically elected, reformist, post-Euromaidan governments as “dictatorship,” “regime,” and “mafia”.
It is difficult not to conclude that Tymoshenko has an agenda to undermine and derail EU sponsored reforms in Ukraine.
Although Tymoshenko presents herself as democratic leader, strongly exploiting her image of one of the leaders of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, her past actions and present political agenda make her devotion to democracy questionable.
Tymoshenko’s track record of a ruthless quest for power – from the secretive intrigue to unseat President Yushchenko in September 2005, to the back-room rewriting of Ukraine’s Constitution to establish a 20-year long power-sharing arrangement with Yanukovych in 2009 – shows she is no stranger to employing means that undermine democracy in the country.
Her present campaign promises focus on abolishing Ukraine’s parliamentary-presidential system and introducing a “true” European parliamentary system. However, a closer look at her proposals – cloaked as new mechanisms of direct democracy – reveals a badly masked power grab agenda which will represent a huge departure from the tradition of European democracy, and will move Ukraine back into the days of authoritarian rule.
Tymoshenko already speaks about her political future after her term as president, hinting in inter-views that she will aim for a newly-created position of chancellor after implementing “constitutional reforms” during her presidency. Tymoshenko’s ambitions to remain in power for as long as possible by subverting national constitutional mechanisms to suit her agenda is reminiscent of the shift to au-thoritarianism happening elsewhere in the region.
While publicly accusing the government of “counter-revolution”, Tymoshenko has been mounting campaigns to derail the progressive reforms pursued by the government. The European Union and other international partners of Ukraine have invested substantial effort and resources to drive the re-forms that Tymoshenko is opposing. She fiercely opposes energy, health care, land market, pension, and judicial reforms, and demands legislative moratoriums on the increases of gas tariffs; on the participation of private companies in the Ukrainian Gas Transmission Network’s operations management; and on the sale of farmland – all of which will bring progressive reforms in those sectors to an end.
In recent years, Tymoshenko also launched personal political assaults on many of Ukraine’s most effective reformers. She has ferociously attacked the CEO of the state-owned energy giant Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolyev, who has overseen the company’s reorganisation according to EU energy rules and transition to transparent management. The former head of the national bank, Valeriya Hontareva, who helped clean up the banking system so oligarchs could no longer use their shady financial institutions as personal piggy banks, was also a regular target. But Tymoshenko has been especially aggressive in her attacks on the reformist acting health minister, American-born Ulana Suprun, who has devoted herself to fighting corruption in the health sector and in implementing ambitious reforms to health care, even modernising medical education.
Anti-corruption track record
Tymoshenko presents herself as an anti-corruption crusader. She even proudly wears her past criminal charges of bribery and embezzlement, as badges of distinction for “political persecution” because of her opposition role. But her efficient public relations strategy should not be confused with the fact that Tymoshenko has no track record to back her image of a “corruption fighter”. In reality, Tymoshenko’s name has regularly popped up in relation to big corruption scandals.
Tymoshenko is most notoriously known for her dealings in the 1990’s with former Ukrainian prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, her political and business associate, who fled embezzlement charges in Ukraine and was convicted in the United States for money laundering. In a letter to the US Department of Justice, Tymoshenko defended Lazarenko’s criminal actions, making the absurd claim that he hid the embezzled money in offshore jurisdictions to fund a future presidential campaign. It is a Tymoshenko trademark to use the status of “opposition” to defend criminal acts.
According to Ukraine’s former prime minister Yatseniuk, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, in 2010, Tymoshenko helped Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi obtain man-agement control over the majority state-owned UkrNafta oil company. This deal allowed the companies affiliated with Kolomoisky to buy UkrNafta’s oil at heavily discounted prices to the detriment of the Ukrainian state. Presently, Kolomoyskyi is facing law suits in the UK, Switzerland, and Ukraine to the tune of three billion US dollars for embezzling funds of his Pryvatbank that the government was forced to bail out and later nationalise in 2016.
Tymoshenko’s name came up many times in relation to the criminal case against a former member of parliament from her Batkivshchyna party, Oleksandr Shepelev, who was charged with embezzling millions from Rodovid Bank, and later fled to Russia. Shepelev was said to be Tymoshenko’s shadow “overseer” in Rodovid (which meant management decisions had to be approved by him) after it was bailed out, and nationalised by Tymoshenko’s government. To understand the political context, one should know that bailing out failing banks in the aftermath of 2008-09 financial crisis was a prominent part of Tymoshenko’s political policies.
Another recent telling episode of Tymoshenko’s “anti-corruption” track record is her role in the scandal connected to a member of Ukraine’s parliament, Oleksandr Onyshchenko. In 2016, Onyshchenko was charged by Ukraine’s Anti-corruption Bureau (NABU) of organising a corrupt scheme involving a subsidiary of the state-owned gas giant NaftoGaz which allowed his organised crime group to embezzle 1.6 billion hryvnias. Ukraine’s parliament lifted parliamentary immunity from Onyshchenko be-cause the majority of MP’s found the case against him persuasive. Onyshchenko fled the country in 2016 to avoid criminal prosecution, and has been on the run (reportedly in the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and Russia) ever since. What further speaks to the seriousness of the criminal charg-es against Onyshchenko is that in 2017, the office of the Anti-corruption Prosecutor and NABU charged the ex-chief of Ukraine’s tax office, Roman Nasirov, with abuse of office in connection to the unlawful decisions that benefited Onyshchenko’s businesses. Also, a dozen other suspected accomplices of Onyshchenko’s embezzlement scheme have been criminally charged. Despite serious evidence of Onyshchenko’s wrongdoing, Tymoshenko publicly defended him in a TV interview.
It is noteworthy that Tymoshenko fervently opposes gas market reform and lobbies to keep Ukraine’s gas sector shackled to the corrupt two tier system which, on paper, sells cheap gas at government con-trolled prices to private households, but in reality allows corrupt government officials and other ac-tors to divert the gas designated for private households to industrial consumers at higher prices, pocketing the difference in price.
In April 2018, Ukraine’s Anti-corruption Bureau initiated an investigation into the illegal financing of Tymoshenko’s 2010 electoral campaign by the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. During Tymoshenko’s 2007-2010 term as prime minister, Gaddafi pursued a deal with the Ukrainian government to lease 100,000 hectares of Ukrainian farming land, as well as other joint economic projects. According to reporting by the Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, Gaddafi donated 4.9 million US dollars in cash to Tymoshenko’s presidential campaign.
Despite such a compromising track record that should have made Tymoshenko toxic in the West, it seems EU politicians do not want to look beyond Tymoshenko’s glamourous image and see her for who she really is.
EPP turns a blind eye
Considering Tymoshenko’s anti-reformist and shady track record and populist agenda, it is inexplica-ble that her Batkivshchyna party maintains an observer status with the European People’s Party (EPP). In 2008, her party joined the EPP family in a move regarded by many as a transparent means of driving support away from the political party of Tymoshenko’s political rival, president Viktor Yushchenko.
The 2012 EPP Manifesto says: “There is a danger that populism and political radicalism will spread. They are threats to our democracies and to the European Union.”
It is perverse that Tymoshenko’s destructive populism, which is undermining the functioning of democracy in Ukraine, has not raised concerns in Brussels. The EPP also ignores Tymoshenko’s party’s meagre support for International Monetary Fund-supported and EU-backed reforms in Ukraine, in particular those related to the Association Agreement with the European Union.
Moreover, many policies promoted by Tymoshenko undermine Ukraine’s path of European integration, in particular her stark opposition to reform in Ukraine’s gas sector and land reform.
Nevertheless, the EPP lends Tymoshenko credibility as a pro-European reformist. In 2015, the EPP president, Joseph Daul, wrote in his letter to Tymoshenko: “The EPP recognises the decisive efforts you have made in bringing Ukraine closer to Europe, for strengthening European values and respect for European standards, and also for ensuring welfare and freedom in Ukraine, respect for the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, and for fighting corruption.”
Considering Tymoshenko’s actual track record, Mr Daul’s praise seems rather undeserved. In fact, such validation of someone with Tymoshenko’s history is detrimental to Ukraine’s democracy. Nevertheless, in 2019, Daul reiterated his praise for Tymoshenko in his greetings on the occasion of the announcement of her presidential candidacy. One cannot help but wonder why publicly available in-formation about Tymoshenko is ignored, and what lobbyism efforts ensured a blind eye was turned to reality.
Mistakes of the past should not be repeated
In 2009, Tymoshenko managed to convince EU leaders that her election as president could be acceptable both to the West and to Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, at that time, the West still regarded Ukraine as Russia’s backyard, and Tymoshenko was seen as someone who would not irritate Russia as president Yushchenko had, with policies that caused Moscow to fear that Ukraine would be decisively pulled out of Russia’s orbit.
The West cannot afford to pretend that Ukraine can move toward the western liberal democratic order with a leadership that is agreeable to Putin’s authoritarian regime. A strong independent Ukraine as a reliable ally is in the best interest of Western democracies and the international security order.
In 2019, the cost of buying into Tymoshenko’s clever public relations campaigns is simply too high. Helping boost the political credibility of a politician who undermines Ukraine’s pro-European and democratic reforms is always dangerous. At a time when Russia is waging war not only against Ukraine, but against the EU and the entire international security order, it is of the utmost importance that the EU be clear-eyed about the risks Tymoshenko’s presidency would pose for Ukraine’s nation-hood, as well as the balance of power and stability in Europe.
Ukraine deserves political leadership that is committed to pro-European reforms. EU political actors should support candidates who have a good track record of delivering on those reforms – not those with a history of undermining them.
This article was co-authored by Roman Sohn, a legal expert, columnist, and long-time civil society activist in Ukraine. His writing has appeared in the EU Observer, the Atlantic Council, and Ukrainska Pravda.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.