Make Way For The Lady In Braids

KIEV, Ukraine -- Yulia Tymoshenko was approved as Ukrainian prime minister on December 18. This marks the beginning of Ms. Yulia's second stint as head of government. She was nominated both times by pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko, whom she helped rise to power during the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, and then hold on to authority during this year's power struggle.

PM Yulia Tymoshenko with braids (2007) and without (2004).

But, since there can be only one Ukrainian head of state, the lady in braids may end up helping Mr. Yushchenko out of office during the country's next presidential elections in 2009.

Personal ambitions aside, the December 18 vote in parliament also marks the reunification of Orange power in Ukraine. Eastern-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, whose presidential dreams were dashed by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko during the mass street protests of 2004, is now back in opposition. Yanukovych had been bullying executive power away from the mild-mannered Yushchenko ever since last year's parliamentary elections allowed him to form a coalition with leftist defectors from the Orange camp. Only with support from Tymoshenko was Yushchenko able to push through fresh elections in September, yielding a new Orange parliamentary majority.

But the new Orange coalition is paper thin (227 out of 450 seats), and a half-dozen or so Yushchenko loyalists within it have made no secret of their hostility toward Tymoshenko. Yushchenko has tried to remain above the dog fight in the legislature, but no one has forgotten that it was he who ended Tymoshenko's first term as premier in September 2005, laying the ground work for Yanukovych's return to power a year later.

Facing a numerous and openly hostile opposition, a president eager to blemish her reputation among Orange voters in the run up to next year's presidential poll, and treachery in her own ranks, Ms. Tymoshenko could be forgiven for treading carefully along the country's much needed path of reforms. Instead, the lady in braids appears defiant of the gauntlet of political adversaries who line her path toward greater power, confidently making her way toward the center stage of public attention, from which she has always drawn her political strength.

Branded as a populist, Tymoshenko has promoted policies no less reformist and pro-Western than those of Mr. Yushchenko. Under Yanukovych, who enjoys much warmer relations with Moscow than either Orange leader, Ukraine's liberal reforms have ground to a halt. Tymoshenko now wants to push forward with reforms and quickly, if for no other reason than to show voters that she is a servant of the people rather than a protector of the elite.

Under Yushchenko, Ukrainians have enjoyed unprecedented civil liberties and economic growth, but the president also turned the constitution into a minefield, while allowing the courts to lose any semblance of respectability that they may have once enjoyed. Such problems will take a lengthy, and more importantly, bilateral effort to resolve. That's why election-minded Yulia is concentrating on what at least appear to be more readily achievable goals.

For example, Ms. Tymoshenko promised on December 18 that Ukraine would join the World Trade Organization "very soon." Yanukovych as well as Yushchenko have promised the same, but the deadline has kept getting pushed back. With most if not all obstacles to WTO entry already overcome, Tymoshenko could hardly accept the credit for success, but Euro-friendly Ukrainians would probably give it to her anyway.

One prominent issue that Tymoshenko could call her own is the fight to clean up Ukraine's shady gas sector, which is inexplicably entrenched with middlemen who profit at the expense of the state. "My position remains unchanged, there cannot be middlemen on the gas market," she told a news conference on December 18. Unlike WTO entry, however, making gas imports from Russia to Ukraine more transparent treads on a lot more well heeled feet.

Other policies advocated by Tymoshenko's team are more controversial, leaving the braided lady open to charges of pandering to the masses. For example, Tymoshenko has promised to immediately end army conscription, instead of phasing it out over the next two years as proposed by the president. She also vowed to return the savings lost by Ukrainians to the inflation that hit the country after the fall of the Soviet Union, without explaining where she'll get the money.

On one of the most controversial issues of all in Ukraine – NATO membership – Tymoshenko seems to have outsmarted both Yanukovych and Yushchenko. Yanukovych has called for an immediate referendum, which Yushchenko supporters say should be preceded by a fair public information campaign. Tymoshenko, who has positioned herself as somewhat less pro-American than Yushchenko, also supports a referendum but has not specified when it should be held.

However, it's not policy that determines a Ukrainian leader's chances for power, but the other way around. In her rise to power, Yulia has decided to keep one opponent at a distance - her declared enemy Yanukovych - while allowing the other to lead her up the isle to center stage, as she steals the show from under his arm.

Yanukovych and the well-organized band of lawmakers that he leads in the parliament have for their part made no secret of their hostility toward Tymoshenko, whom they have publicly characterized as reckless.

''In my opinion, the election of Tymoshenko as premier will deepen political instability and unfortunately facilitate confrontation in society,'' the outgoing premier said during his own news conference on December 18.

After it had become clear that the two Orange parties (Tymoshenko's BYuT and Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense, which Yushchenko sponsored) could form a coalition on the basis of the early elections held on September 30, Yanukovych's team did everything they could to stall the formation of a new government for over two months.

Moreover, Tymoshenko's first confirmation vote on December 11 came up short for what BYuT members said was technical tampering with the parliament's electronic voting system.

Even now, as Tymoshenko settles into her new job, Yanukovych's Regions party, together with its Communists allies from the last coalition, remains defiant. ''We are convinced that the existence of a coalition of 227 [seats held by Orange parties in parliament] will not last for long. The people of Ukraine will oust the populists like they throw out garbage during spring cleaning,'' reads a press release from Yanukovych's office.

The president, who went from staunch Orange loyalist to distant inter-party arbitrator following the September 30, denied any double dealing in the coalition forming process, which he was accused of following the 2006 parliamentary elections that brought Yanukovych to power. ''All suspicions of duplicity have been proven unfounded. The government has gotten a leader, and the country - hope for an effective new government team,'' Yushchenko said on December 18.

At the same time, Yushchenko, who will control the new Cabinet's defense and foreign ministries, made it clear that he would hold his Orange colleague publicly accountable during her term in office. ''Society wants to see real implementation of electoral promises ... The coalition has been given a clear field to act, and the actions of the majority as well as the Cabinet,'' he said.

However, unlike Yushchenko, Ms. Yulia has yet to miss an opportunity to act and has rarely misread her voters. If Yushchenko and Yanukovych cannot do the same, they had better make way for the lady in braids.

Source: Eurasian Home