Ukraine: Timoshenko the Kingmaker?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is set to hold parliamentary elections March 26. While the results will reflect the influence of Russian interests, the West is too busy elsewhere to put up much of a struggle.

Yulia Timoshenko

At present, polls put all three parties with roughly equal shares of the vote. No matter who wins, however, the choice of Ukraine's next prime minister probably lies in the hands of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.


Ukraine will hold elections for its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on March 26. The main competitors are familiar from the Orange Revolution. They include the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovich and the Party of Regions, the bloc led by former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, and President Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine party. Polls, albeit with a large margin of error, show the three in a tie with about 20 percent each; many voters remain undecided.

Under the new Ukrainian Constitution, Rada deputies will be elected under a purely proportional scheme using party lists and setting a threshold of 3 percent of the national vote to gain seats. The 450-member parliament will turn over completely.

No party will gain more than half of the seats in this race, so whichever wins the most seats will not necessarily form the next government, since other two could partner against the winner to form a majority. In this case, likely third-place candidate Yulia Timoshenko will decide which party gets to name the next prime minister, via her ability to choose which party to join in a coalition.

Generally speaking, Ukraine is split between a pro-Russian east and south and a nationalist, pro-Western center and west. The Party of Regions controls the pro-Russian part of Ukraine while Timoshenko and Our Ukraine share the nationalist vote.

The Party of Regions looks likely to win the most votes, but that does not mean it will form the next government. Yanukovich and his party are backed by powerful oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who sponsored Yanukovich's 2004 presidential campaign and is believed to operate major criminal enterprises in eastern Ukraine. Akhmetov, who has ties to Russia, is on Party of Regions list.

Russia has shown that it will go far to keep Ukraine under its control to serve as a buffer, as exemplified by Moscow's recent natural gas cutoff. With increasing aggressive activity by Russia on the Crimean Peninsula, and Moscow keen on retaining control over natural gas transit, Russia will seek to influence the elections. It will go about this more quietly than it did in 2004. Whereas Putin personally supported Yanukovich's presidential candidacy before, this time Moscow is sticking to financial support, mostly routed through figures such as Akhmetov.

The Our Ukraine party does not have the votes to win, and Timoshenko's candidacy hurts rather than helps its chances. Timoshenko's popularity has fallen significantly since her denunciation of the natural gas delivery contract between Ukraine and Russia. In her concern for her personal and financial interests, Timoshenko miscalculated the degree of support for the deal, which Yushchenko backs.

Nevertheless, she is a charismatic populist, and still stands poised to pull votes away from Our Ukraine, though her party probably will not win the most votes. After the election, she will partner with whichever party gives her the best deal, despite her recent negotiations with Our Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Yushchenko's behavior, including the dismissal of Timoshenko as prime minister in September 2005, has not put him in the best light with the West. As with Russia, Western involvement in Ukraine's elections is also more circumspect than in 2004.

After the natural gas cutoff, the European Union has come to realize that seeking to pull Ukraine too far out of the Russian orbit jeopardizes its own energy supply. Washington still supports Yushchenko, but U.S. foreign policy has trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time, and has priorities beyond Ukraine at present.

The next prime minister will thus likely be a compromise candidate. And while the Rada elections could be seen as a referendum on Yushchenko and Our Ukraine's performance, they are really a contest between Russia and the West -- and the West is not trying very hard.

And while the Party of Regions may win the vote, this might not translate to the controlling the office of prime minister, unless perhaps Akhmetov is willing to make Timoshenko a very nice offer.

Source: Stratfor