As Ukraine looks to its future, Tymoshenko is the past

As Ukraine looks to its future, Tymoshenko is the past

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Glory to heroes / Spoilt.Exile, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
'Glory to heroes,' Maidan memorial / Spoilt.Exile, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2014 – Oleksandr Turchynov, deputy leader of Batkivshchyna (All-Ukrainian Union Fatherland), the largest opposition party in Ukraine’s parliament, has been named as interim president of Ukraine. He replaces ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled Kyiv on Friday.

Ukraine’s parliament removed Yanukovich from office on Saturday, and a warrant has since been issued for his arrest. Yanukovich declared on Saturday that he would not resign the presidency or leave Ukraine. That same day, a charter plane supposedly carrying Yanukovich was denied permission to fly out of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk because it lacked the proper documents. According to inspectors from Ukraine’s State Border Service, Yanukovich then descended from the plane and entered an armored car, which sped away. He has not been seen since.

Where Ukraine goes from here is hard to predict. This isn’t the first time Yanukovich has been driven out of office by a revolution. He was elected to the presidency in 2004, but the Supreme Court of Ukraine declared those elections fraudulent. In the wake of public outcry, the Orange Revolution brought opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Yushchenko’s prime minister was Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of Batkivshchyna. Yanukovich became leader of the opposition. When Yanukovich won the presidency in 2010, Tymoshenko was charged with a number of crimes, including abuse of power and embezzlement. She was sentenced to seven years in prison in fall, 2011, in a trial that was heavily criticized by European human rights organizations as unfair. Her release was one of the demands delivered by the opposition to President Yanukovich.

Tymoshenko was released from prison on Saturday, and almost immediately addressed the crowds at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Outside observers might expect that her role in the earlier Orange Revolution, the importance the opposition placed on her release, and the selection of her deputy, Turchynov, as interim president, make her a likely shoo-in as the next president of Ukraine when elections are held in May. That would be a mistake.

Tymoshenko’s reception from the crowd was polite, but they made it clear that the uprising was not about her. As Alexander Tkachenko, the CEO of Ukraine’s 1+1 TV put it, “The February revolution took place at a very high price. I am certain that people did not die for specific politicians. I know people from every camp, and I would like very much that at this time there be no manipulation or illusions with them. Because now citizens have the right to ask anyone who comes to power at least three things: that he keep the law – it is the same for all; that he not kill; that he not steal. And also that Ukraine is a part of Europe.”

If Tymoshenko hoped that the crowd would immediately demand that she lead the revolution, she was disappointed. Her political future is now complicated by a report on her daughter, Eugenia Tymoshenko, which was released yesterday by Ukrainian news outlet TSN.

According to TSN, Eugenia Tymoshenko spent her birthday on February 20 at Rome’s luxurious De Russie hotel, near the Piazza del Popolo. She stayed in a room registered to Arthur Chechotkina, one of the best rooms in the extremely expensive hotel. They checked in on February 18, the day that bloodshed began in Kyiv. They celebrated with Chechotkina’s parents before Tymoshenko returned to Ukraine.

Back in Kyiv, Eugenia thanked the Maidan protestors. “Our family regrets that … it was necessary to pay with the blood of people, our heroes.” She then went to join her mother at her mother’s “huge” estate. That Eugenia was being entertained in luxury in Rome during the worst of the violence in Kyiv is unlikely to impress an opposition that is already unwilling to embrace her mother.

Not only is the ultimate leadership of the opposition unclear, but also the direction of the revolution itself is unsettled. Some Russians support the revolution, but when Turchynov said that his top priority is to “return to the path of European integration,” Russian protestors in Crimea tore down a Ukrainian flag and replaced it with a Russian flag.

The possibility of predominantly Russian eastern Ukraine splitting from the rest of the country is very real. Western Ukraine is the center of Ukrainian nationalism, and people from that part of the country have very little love for Russia. They see their future with Europe, not Russia, a path that angers Ukraine’s large Russian minority, who want closer ties to Moscow. What Russia will do if Ukraine’s Russians seek independence from Kyiv is unclear, but with its domination of Ukraine’s energy supplies and the proximity of its army, Russia’s role will be central.

There is room for cautious optimism in Ukraine. If Ukraine can manage free and fair elections, and if it can elect a prime minister who has no further political ambitions, then it may manage the economic and political reforms it needs to succeed as a member of the European community. What Ukraine does not need is another leader who sees his or her position as a means to greater personal wealth and power. Yanukovich is the past, but so is Tymoshenko. It is time for Ukraine to look to the future.

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