Will Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko Be Third Time Lucky?
22 January, 2019

On January 22, the former prime minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko was officially nominated for presidency by her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party. To those who are interested in Ukrainian politics, Tymoshenko's presidential ambitions hardly came as a surprise as the politician already tried her chances in the presidential elections of 2010 and 2014, finishing second both times.

The former prime minister is leading the polls but everything could change come election day. Her campaign is aimed at improving living standards for the ordinary Ukrainian, with populist promises to cut gas tariffs.

Photo: Yulia Tymoshenko / Facebook

Hromadske sat down with former Batkivshchyna MP Yuriy Hanushchak and current Batkivshchyna MP Oleksiy Ryabchyn to discuss the ins and outs of Tymoshenko’s campaign and whether the seasoned politician’s presidential ambitions will be realized.

Bold Promises

One of the boldest elements of Tymoshenko’s campaign is the proposal to amend the constitution in order to move from a semi-presidential system of government to a parliamentary government. This would transfer the majority of power to the head of government from the president and provide for better checks and balances, according to her party member Oleksiy Ryabchyn.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections: Polls Reveal Potential Winners and Losers

“So she proposes, and, as we see, the new economic course and to adopt a new constitution, where there will be only one person responsible for everything, with better checks and balances for opposition, not to become a dictatorship,” Ryabchyn states.

Ryabchyn asserts that Tymoshenko’s proposals of constitutional change are not a “populist contortion,” unlike other aspects of her campaign. Instead, the impetus for this lies with civil society, NGOs and expert analysts.

“It's leadership rhetoric, which will not benefit Tymoshenko but she knows, as a leader,  that this is thing that the country needs,” he says.

Hanushchak, however, is skeptical of the practicalities behind amending the constitution, which would require a referendum. He refers to Tymoshenko’s promise on constitutional change as a “manipulation” to attract votes.

"The constitution is a very difficult document," he says. "Only one question: If you adopt it in a referendum, how do you want to make the change in the constitution? Also in a referendum?"

Gas Affairs

On October 20, 2018, Tymoshenko took to social media to criticize Poroshenko for increasing household gas tariffs in order to meet demands from the International Monetary Fund. In turn, as part of her campaign, Tymoshenko has promised to cut them by two.

From left to right: former Batkivshchyna MP Yuriy Hanushchak, Hromadske radio presenter Andriy Kulykov and Batkivshchyna MP Oleksiy Ryabchyn discuss Yulia Tymoshenko's chances of becoming the president of Ukraine. Photo credit: Hromadske

Hanushchak’s concern with this promise is that it does not take into account the market price of the gas.

“You must say that the price for the economy and the price for housing must be the same. This is the truth. If you say the price for housing must be twice less, but say nothing about the price for economy, this is a lie,” he comments.

READ MORE: The Sunday Show on Yulia Tymoshenko’s Chances of Election Success

But Ryabchyn believes that his party leader’s promise to cut gas tariffs could be possible with the introduction of independent regulators and if Ukraine was to make more use of its own natural gas deposits, and fast, as the global push for renewable energy sources increases.

History in Gas

Gas is what Tymoshenko has been known for her whole career. Before Tymoshenko entered politics in the mid 1990s, she built her empire on gas, earning her the “gas princess” nickname. A gas deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin was also responsible for her fall from grace under former president Yanukovych. Tymoshenko was charged with abuse of office and imprisoned.

Tymoshenko’s dealings with Russia has led many to speculate about her links with the Kremlin to this day, which Ryabchyn vehemently denies.

“She has no linkages to Russia...We are the pro-European center-right force that is moving Ukraine to Europe," he states adding that Tymoshenko is "very strong " and "able to negotiate with anybody,” 

Ryabchyn also believes that the accusations about the Russian deal is a thing of the past now former U.S. president Donald Trump’s advisor Paul Manafort is jailed for the money he earned helping Yanukovych devise the smear campaign that landed Tymoshenko in jail.

“Maybe this contract is not so bad?” Ryabchyn asks.

But if Tymoshenko does win the election, she will be faced with the task of ending the war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. And to do so, she will have to negotiate with Russia and President Putin, which Hanushchak thinks she might have a chance at.

“You can see that [there’s] only about one person Putin says that he will not [hold discussions] with after the Azov conflict. He said that he will discuss with the new power. So, for Putin, everybody, in exception of Poroshenko, is not the best but better,”  the former Batkivshchyna MP commented.

Does She Stand a Chance?

Tymoshenko has held on to the top spot in the poll over recent months, which suggests that she’s likely to at least make into the second round of elections. Both Ryabchyn and Hanushchak agree that one element of her initial success is her nationwide appeal. This has not traditionally been the case in previous elections in Ukraine, as Hanushchak explains.

“The situation that was in the time of Yushchenko, that Yushchenko represented the west and Yanukovych represents the east of Ukraine has changed. So it's very good that all leaders – Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – represent all the country,” he says.

Hanushchak adds that Tymoshenko's big experience in politics has taught her to appeal to people's hearts instead of minds. 

"So there is this idea: Yes, I know she's lying, but I believe it," the former politician says.