A spectre is haunting Ukraine – the spectre of Yulia Tymoshenko.
Her presence has been largely erased from the anti-government protests that have convulsed Kiev since the 21st November, the day President Viktor Yanukovych formally abandoned Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. Tymoshenko is not simply invisible, but conspicuous by her absence. Fatherland party loyalists are among opposition leaders and protesters and a few pro-Tymoshenko portraits and banners can be seen on the Maidan, but that is all. Her short-lived hunger strike did not inspire waves of solidarity or even much interest, to her chagrin. Most galling for her – and ironic, and interesting – is the news that former Orange Comrade Victor Yushchenko has shared a conspicuous platform with her arch-foe Leonid Kuchma in support of the protests (Kuchma once described the choice between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko as “bad and very bad”). Tymoshenko — Orange Icon, Gas Princess — is being sidelined by her constituency and her enemies. Shut away in a prison hospital, prize captive of Yanukovych, she has been cut out of the action — her words a pale echo of former stridencies, relayed by loyal daughter Eugenia and almost lost on the freezing Kiev air.
But she is there – and more potent, in some ways, because of her absence. Why? Well, for one thing, the EU controversy is partly about her. Yanukovych surrendered European ambitions to Putin for two complimentary reasons: direct Russian threats, and calls by EU leaders to release Tymoshenko. Despite his status as Russia’s man in Ukraine, Yanukovych has struck a complicated balance between total capitulation to Russian demands and serious flirtation with EU overtures. To be as pro-Russian as Putin demands would be to surrender key elements of sovereignty – over Crimea, over energy policy, over language rights. However, releasing Tymoshenko to satisfy Europe is completely out of the question. As far as he can, Yanukovych runs Ukraine as a family fiefdom (protestors and opponents call his party circle ‘The Family’) and this particular incarceration is not only political, it is also personal. In partial response to this EU demand he has re-orientated Ukraine into the Russian sphere, an alternative orbit defined by the Eastern Partnership and the Customs Union. This puts Ukraine on a political par with Belarus rather than, say, recent Vilnius Summit hosts Lithuania (where, of course, part of this drama played out). As ever, Andrew Wilson is the best English-language commentator on such events.
There is not exactly a base of mass support for Tymoshenko among the current Kiev protestors. She is considered another embezzling oligarch who subordinated the national interest to personal plunder while in power. She comes from the murky world of the Donetsk industrial and energy barons that she now attacks with such ferocity and is viewed with scepticism and suspicion for this reason. Like Victor Yushechnko, her popular support was damaged by the unedifying collapse of the Orange Coalition. She was wholly implicated in that catastrophe – from the personal antagonism and rivalries that poisoned her alliance with Yushchenko to her fatally mismanaged negotiations with Putin that finally fractured the pro-European front. This joint failure led to mass disillusionment and apathy in the civil society of West Ukraine and the restoration of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions cartel.
Actually, as I have argued before, Tymoshenko’s dubious reputation and failure in office is less important than it seems. She was essentially transformed by her violent feud with Kuchma and the grand drama of 2004; she became a transitional and transcendent figurehead despite her past record and ruthless methods. By fashioning a powerful aesthetic image for herself, she physically embodied a pro-European Ukrainian nationalism that rejected the Soviet past and authoritarian Putinism. Ejected from office, tarnished and scarred, she was the only original Orange partner to maintain fierce and vocal resistance to the Party of Regions power-brokers on an international stage. Her furious Rada interventions throughout 2010 – notably when Yanukovych extended the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean base – were unhinged blasts of invective designed to expose the dangerous sell-out of Ukraine to Russian interests. (Meanwhile Yushchenko – the man Putin and Yanukovych were willing to disfigure and probably kill in 2004 – was compliant and compromised, more interested in undermining former allies than the new regime.) There was no option but to jail her – and for as long as possible. For the opposition, with all its disappointments and alterations since 2005, she remained a significant liability. But who else fought their corner with such intensity?
The most charismatic and effective leaders of the Colour Revolutions that rocked Putin’s world in 2003-5 have since been brought low, their administrations sunk and reputations shredded. Nevertheless, they have formed bonds in a pro-European front against the territorial ambitions of Putin and the venality of his external allies and stooges. This was dramatized by the miraculous appearance of Mikheil Saakashvili on Independence Square on Saturday 7th – flanked by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, a key-link in the anti-Putin chain, Saakashvili used language provocatively redolent of the days of Orange and Rose. “I am Ukrainian, I am Georgian, I am European,” he blustered proudly, impressively, “I knew that one day Ukraine would become an example of success, an example of an Eastern European nation integrated into the European family of free, democratic, prospering countries. Today I see that I was right. Ukraine will be able to do this – we will do this together.”
Unfortunately for this winged rhetoric, the former Georgian president has just been ejected from office by an administration slightly more amenable to Putin – another victim of the Russian Restoration (or “political has-been” as Kremlin TV station RT kindly put it). Nevertheless, this intervention made the key point: what happens in Kiev still reverberates in Tbilisi, Minsk, Chişinău, Tashkent, Baku, Bishkek and Moscow itself. As Wilson notes, the Russian opposition defeated in the streets during 2011-12 have been transfixed by the Ukraine protests. Belarusians travelling to Kiev in solidarity were denied entry at border crossings, with traffic officers puncturing their tires for good measure. Euromaidan, like the Orange Revolution before it, is a regional – an international – event.
But the risks are huge and the prognosis bleak. In 2003-5, from Freedom Square in Tbilisi to the massacre at Andijon, the revolts became more violent and chaotic as a result of their success – a logic followed by the Arab Spring. After 2005, dictators and their terror proxies took control of the situation as the West capitulated and receded. Since then, revolution and chaos has spread across the Middle East and South America. Western capitalism has been damaged – functionally and symbolically. The global and theoretical status of democracy itself has been diminished to a frightening degree. The U.S. has retreated from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In this context, in 2013, the pro-Western Ukrainians are left with no champion but a chastened and retracting EU — Washington still largely silent. The politicians who led the Orange Revolution in 2004 have failed and been thrown out of office, leaving a motley crew of chancers and sinister ultra-nationalists to capitalize on anti-Yanukovych unrest – and these people are not necessarily pro-European because they are anti-Russian, even if they are anti-Russian.
Euromaidan is leaderless – its objectives improvised and potentially unlimited, both a strength and a weakness. In domestic terms, its enemies are the Party of Regions and Yanukovych’s governing gang, the Communist Party and the Russian Bloc, and a silent majority in the Russian-speaking Eastern oblasts. This uprising, in cities across Ukraine and not only Kiev, is the result of failure, corruption and misrule – of a country handed back to the worst gangsters they have, the very people deposed in 2004 for their criminality. A new administration is needed to bring Ukraine back to Europe, to both follow and strengthen Georgia and Moldova – an administration that echoes the original Orange compact, with the West out-balancing the recidivist East and the democrats keeping grass-roots pressure on authoritarians and nationalists alike. Ukraine has unique ties with Russia that can’t be dissolved or ignored – complex trade agreements and energy considerations that EU officials failed to understand or fully consider in their botched negotiations. Russia outplayed Europe in this round, but Ukraine has a different fate and a different future articulated by the Euromaidan Ukrainians who do not who want their country to remain captive to oligarchs, energy mafias, security thugs and antisemitic fascists.