Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Everyone to the Elections! Part 3: Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko

Yuliya Tymoshenko sounds like a politician on the verge of a victory. Erik attended her press conference and rally today and her rhetoric and demeanor showed confidence, optimism, and a willingness to continue jabbing at her rivals. She is one of the most intriguing politicians in Ukraine, in part because she plays the political game so well. Her first major professional position was in the oil business, and she rose to the position of president of the United Energy Systems of Ukraine. She became active in politics, working closely with Pavlo Lazarenko (who is now sitting in a U.S. prison for money laundering). This connection, and her accumulation of wealth in the oil and gas business (dealing with the Russian corporation Gazprom) has prompted her opponents to question Tymoshenko's integrity. In politics, she became leader of the Fatherland Party, and now runs under the banner of the Bloc of YuliyaTymoshenko. Her tendency to dress in all white, or traditional Ukrainian garb as well as her traditional braid (see the picture to the left) also makes her stand out. Yuliya has branded herself as a populist defender of Ukrainian traditions, and this has been a successful approach.

Erik gained access to Yuliya's press conference that was held in L'viv prior to today's rally. She answered a wide range of questions, focusing her comments on her intent to form a "coalition of democratic forces" after the election. She was careful not to directly criticize the president or his party (although during the rally unflattering photos of Yushchenko shaking hands with Yanukovych and Moroz were displayed on the big screen). She was even baited to criticize "musicians" who are also politicians. Yuliya noted that she liked Slava Vakarchuk (see the post about Our Ukraine for more on him), but was careful not to indicate whether or not she liked only his music or also his move into the political arena. She also showed some wit; when asked what she would do on election eve (after campaigning officially ends), she answered that she would sleep, although her team would probably not sleep at all. The final question of the press conference was a bit embarrassing, especially because the crowd is likely to believe that the journalist posing the question was an American. In English, the Dutch reporter noted that he had asked Yuliya a few years ago about Bill Clinton, and she indicated that she would not like to have him as a husband. Did she still think this? Tymoshenko laughed it off, and said that no, she would not like Bill Clinton as a husband.

This question, and other issues related to Tymoshenko point to one clear unique element of her candidacy: she is a strong, assertive woman running for a prominent post in a country with more traditional views of a woman's place. Certainly, no journalist has asked Yanukovych if he would like Hillary Clinton as his wife. Moreover, a few years ago, Tymoshenko had to prove that her braid was real (Erik saw this press conference on TV when he was here before). While she is held to a different standard because she is a woman, she also uses her image to her advantage. One of her own t-shirt slogans (on shirts given to college students) was: "let the beer be cold and let [Yuliya] be hot." (While the t-shirt did not say Yuliya, it had the party symbol, drawing that connection).

She also gets attention because she is a populist firebrand (Erik has seen some references on the web to her as "Hugo Chavez in a skirt." This is an exaggeration to be sure, but it gives a reference point for how she is viewed by some). She showed her skills in oratory at the rally. Although she was introduced rather oddly after a duet by middle-aged singers who also rapped about a dog, Yuliya took command of the stage. Tymoshenko again showed her confidence by focusing her speech on potential coalitions after the elections. She rejected the idea of a "grand coalition" including the Party of Regions, portraying that party solely as a force of the dark past. She gleefully noted that Oleksandr Moroz would be out of parliament (highly likely as his Socialist Party is polling quite low), and that the Communist Party was dying off. Yuliya appealed to voters to abandon small parties (a pointed challenge to supporters of Svoboda, a minor Ukrainian nationalist party popular in L'viv) because wasting votes would help Yanukovych by increasing his seat totals. Instead, they should vote for her and support a real democratic future for Ukraine. She also noted her proposed referendum that would allow Ukrainian citizens to choose between a full presidential or parliamentary system (currently Ukraine has a hybrid between the two).

Tymoshenko's Bloc is likely to finish second in the election, but she has been campaigning hard, especially in the center, and may do even better than expected. Since no party is likely to have a majority, she will have to find a partner. Based on her rhetoric, she can only partner with Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense. Depending on how things turn out, this could strengthen Yushchenko's bargaining position as he has been willing to deal both with Yuliya and with Yanukovych. We will know much more next Monday morning!

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