POLITICAL BLOC PROFILE: The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc

by Zenon Zawada
Kyiv Press Bureau

During the 2006 parliamentary election campaign, The Ukrainian Weekly will profile the leading political blocs. This week's installment features the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

KYIV - With the Our Ukraine Bloc keeping all the symbols and slogans from the "maidan" (Independence Square) - the focal point of the Orange Revolution - Yulia Tymoshenko had to re-invent her image for the 2006 parliamentary campaign.

On occasion, she now appears in public without the braid that brought her worldwide adoration, letting down her thick, blond wavy hair to mesmerize onlookers.

Her bloc's symbol is a red heart against a white background.

In her images and words, she has cast herself as a fighter for justice against a corrupt establishment that forced her from power.

"Not a single person from the old or new government is held accountable by the law," she said at a February 20 press conference. "We have this tacit amnesty in which everyone is excused. And I am startled that our adolescent prisons are full of children who stole a can of condensed milk, but the guys who steal billions call this business."

Party leaders

Several political blocs in the election campaign are built around a single personality, with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc being the most obvious one.

If Ms. Tymoshenko were to leave politics, her bloc would evaporate and most of her votes would go to the Our Ukraine bloc, said Ivan Lozowy, president of the Kyiv-based Institute of Statehood and Democracy, which is exclusively financed by Ukrainian business donations.

It's her charismatic personality, combined with her image as a strong, patriotic leader, that draws voters to her, political experts said.

Ask her voters why they are supporting Ms. Tymoshenko, and they often repeat a popular adage that "only a woman will save Ukraine." In their view, Ms. Tymoshenko is the fulfillment of such a prophecy.

Her party's electoral list is an odd hodge-podge of nationalists, oligarchs and policy-makers, political experts said. In second and third place on the lists are her trusted confidants and advisors Oleksander Turchynov and Mykola Tomenko.

Like Ms. Tymoshenko, Mr. Turchynov is a Dnipropetrovsk native. He served as the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine during her tenure as prime minister, while Mr. Tomenko served as her vice prime minister for humanitarian affairs.

Fourth on her list is Supreme Civil Court Judge Vasyl Onopenko, who is described in the Tymoshenko Bloc's campaign literature as someone who resisted a series of attempts by former President Leonid Kuchma's regime to get him to join its forces and serve its interests.

Former television news anchorman Andrii Shevchenko is fifth on the Tymoshenko Bloc's list. In 2005 Mr. Shevchenko became vice-president of Ukraine's national television and radio company, where he attempted to introduce reforms creating community-based programming.

It's likely that Mr. Shevchenko would like to reclaim leadership in the company and renew those attempts, political experts said.

Unlike the Our Ukraine Bloc, Ms. Tymoshenko makes no attempt to hide the nationalists in her bloc.

Nationalist icon Levko Lukianenko, who was a political prisoner in Soviet prisons and labor camps for 26 years, is sixth on her electoral list.

Ms. Tymoshenko frequently makes public appearances alongside Andrii Shkil, an outspoken supporter of nationalist causes such as recognition of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and former leader of the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNA-UNSO) paramilitary group.

Gongadze case crusader Hryhorii Omelchenko is seventh on the bloc's list.

Political strategy

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc was created with the union of her Batkivschyna political party with Mr. Onopenko's Ukrainian Social-Democratic Party and Mr. Lukianenko's Sobor Ukrainian Republican Party.

Ms. Tymoshenko's political platforms have been widely described by political experts as populist and self-serving. Clear-cut policy positions are difficult to identify.

She supports Ukraine's integration into the European Union, yet Ms. Tymoshenko doesn't support membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "until this idea gains broad public support," Mr. Tomenko said February 3.

Ms. Tymoshenko said she supports free market principles, yet as prime minister imposed price controls on such commodities as gasoline, sugar and meat, drawing criticism from the U.S. State Department and Western political experts.

For her harshest critics on her economic policy, such as Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Ms. Tymoshenko points to her leadership in the transparent and honest reprivatization of the Kryvorizhstal steel mill. She also pointed out that her government repealed 5,000 laws that were created to benefit corrupt officials and businessmen.

The one critical issue in which Ms. Tymoshenko has demonstrated solid consistency has been defense of the Ukrainian language. She opposes official status for the Russian language.

Ms. Tymoshenko's delivers all her speeches and press conferences in Ukrainian, except when visiting the "blue oblasts," or those that voted for Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 election.

With regard to domestic policy, Ms. Tymoshenko's opponents have labeled her as a populist, a description that most experts and academics, both Western and Ukrainian, are in full agreement with.

When the Verkhovna Rada approved her Cabinet's 2005 budget, she took special pride in declaring it Ukraine's most generous budget ever.

Campaign strategy

Amidst the tens of thousands of political ads to flood the airwaves of Ukrainian radio and television, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc has produced none. Instead, Ms. Tymoshenko spent her entire campaign traveling all across Ukraine and speaking to large audiences. The Tymoshenko Bloc has also produced many billboard advertisements, posting them throughout Ukraine.

Unlike the Our Ukraine and Party of Regions blocs, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc has stuck to one slogan: "There is justice, it's worth fighting for!"

Unlike the more self-restrained Our Ukraine campaign, Ms. Tymoshenko directly attacks the Party of the Regions and its leader Mr. Yanukovych, stating that among her campaign's goals is to convince his supporters that his party is the wrong choice for Ukraine.

This week, she will spend several days in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. "I will try to explain to people that they can't vote for the Party of the Regions under any conditions," Ms. Tymoshenko said. "I think I will find arguments to convince people."

She said her bloc will never form a coalition with the Party of the Regions, and wants a coalition only with the Our Ukraine bloc, which in turn has firmly rejected her for the prime minister position again.

Ms. Tymoshenko doesn't need to engage in the standard fare of radio and television ads, said Ihor Balynskyi, the editor-in-chief of Zakhidna Informatsiyna Corp., an information-analytical news agency based in Lviv. She is most effective in conveying her political message through public speeches and appearances, he noted.

After the Tymoshenko Bloc voted alongside the Party of the Regions and the Communists to sack Prime Minister Yurii Yekhanurov and his Cabinet of Ministers, Ms. Tymoshenko immediately traveled to western Ukraine to convince voters that she represented patriotic interests.

"Tymoshenko can turn an audience of 15,000 people in her favor," Mr. Balynskyi said. "I have seen with my own eyes how she turned people who were against her to her side after delivering a speech."

The Tymoshenko Bloc commands 15 percent of the electorate, according to the National Institute for Strategic Research, compared with 22 percent for Our Ukraine and 24 percent for the Party of the Regions. The National Institute of Strategic Research is a government research agency that often performs work for the president and his Secretariat.

According to the Western-financed Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the Tymoshenko Bloc has the support of 16 percent of the electorate, compared with 13 percent for Our Ukraine and 31 percent for the Party of the Regions.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, February 26, 2006, No. 9, Vol. LXXIV

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