As for the prospects of the presidential race, initial reports at the end of 2018 had Tymoshenko at the top of the pool of candidates. She began making inroads with many foreign leaders, stating via Facebook that “The presidential election is approaching, and it would be irrational for a newly elected president to use up their precious work hours on building bridges and establishing contacts when it can be done now.” However, with the emergence of Volodymyr Zelensky, an anti-establishment comedian, as a leading candidate, Tymoshenko will be forced to adjust her approach as the popular opposition candidate. The first round of elections take place on March 31st with a possible second round of elections following in April. Despite having maintained a strong lead in the polls for months, Tymoshenko has slipped into a tie with current President Poroshenko, with both trailing Zelensky by more than 5 points (Jacobsen).
As the Ukrainian presidential elections quickly approach, speculation is rife as to what each candidate may represent for a strong Ukrainian future. Comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenksy, leading in the polls, is an absolute wildcard that could successfully transfer his on-screen role to politics or crumble in the face of Russian opposition. It remains to be seen how Russia could benefit from his wildcard status. Current President Petro Poroshenko has done nothing more than evidence to the Ukrainian public that he is the lesser of the evils, hoping to coast into another term. Both raise alarming concerns if elected. However, Yulia Tymoshenko presents equally unnerving prospects.
Of Tymoshenko’s many years of experience in Ukrainian governance, including as Prime Minister, Western leaders tend to focus on 2009. In 2009, Tymoshenko exhibited a pro-Russian stance that left Western leaders skeptical about her political leanings. Ukraine’s government then struck deal with Putin to supply gas from Russia to Ukraine, with underlying assumptions of political benefit and corruption on the part of Tymoshenko. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer hypothesized, however, that “[Tymoshenko] is pro-Tymoshenko. She is also smart enough as a politician to know that anyone who gets elected and moves in a dramatically pro-Russian way is going to lose the country’s support very quickly. Her views are flexible” (Lynch). If this statement holds true, she might be the West’s greatest hope. Although accused of Russian leanings, including distrust from Ukrainian citizens on the grounds that she is a native Russian speaker rather than Ukrainian, a lifelong politician keen on power retention may just present an exploitable situation to both sides of the Ukrainian sides: Russia and the West. If either side can gradually present situations—economic, political, or otherwise—within Ukraine that create cause for outside influence, Western leaders might tap into Tymoshenko’s nature as a malleable survivalist.
However, regardless of the outcome of the coming elections, Ukrainian oligarchs and the national parliament may still be suffocating for the new president. It is widely regarded in the international community that influential Ukrainian oligarchs are experiencing a new phenomenon: discord. They simply do not agree on a single candidate. Tymoshenko might benefit from this in a way that the other two candidates do not. As a people-pleaser, she could corral a substantial part of the oligarchs while sacrificing only a small part of her policy views.
This is not to say that Tymoshenko has no plan. In fact, Tymoshenko’s domestic plans have alarmed economists across the globe. Fears of economic collapse in Ukraine are rife with her plans to triple pensions, among other policy changes. Messages such as this serve to get her elected, but the long-run impact of many of her proposed changes will be counter-productive to Ukrainian prosperity. Additionally, she has insinuated doubt over the 2015 Minsk agreements that are one of the last barriers between Ukraine and Russian aggression. Former advisors and current theorists generally agree that Tymoshenko has a somewhat vague foreign policy in a time when Ukraine is at the crossroads between Russia and the West. With whatever power in policy-making that she is able to maintain away from the influence of parliament and the oligarchs, there is enough consensus that her actions may surprise the international community.
Poroshenko’s years in power have not yielded many positive results on the Russian front. Zelensky’s prospects for victory are strong but alarming given that his campaign is vague on so many of its proposals. Tymoshenko may just present the safe short-term option for Ukraine. Her penchant for preserving her own status may help avoid drastic international action. However, should criticisms of her dramatic domestic policy ring true, Ukraine may be vulnerable in the long-term both domestically and politically. In short, a Tymoshenko presidency may prove to be less of a wildcard than Zelensky but more than Poroshenko. She has exhibited traits of populism and is flexible enough to preserve the short-term Ukrainian situation. If Ukraine is to prosper, they will need someone with a stronger sense of direction than any of the current candidates – only 9% of Ukrainians trust their government to begin with. Tymoshenko’s indictment of corruption will only go so far with the Ukrainian people as she too has been a mainstay in the political system for two decades.
Bateson, Ian. “The Fall and Troubled Rise of a Ukrainian Populist.” The Atlantic, March 28th, 2019.
Jacobsen, Samuel. “Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukrainian Presidential Candidate.” Praemon, March 23rd, 2019. Accessed via http://praemon.org/%ef%bb%bfyulia-tymoshenko-ukrainian- presidential-candidate/.
Lynch, Justin. “Ukraine’s Election Is a Mess – and That’s Exactly What Putin Wants.” Foreign Policy, March 29th, 2019.
Olearchyk, Roman and Max Seddon. “Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko fights to keep presidential hopes alive.” Financial Times, March 18th, 2019.
“Profile: Yulia Tymoshenko.” BBC News, May 23rd, 2014.