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The Ukrainian Obama: Who is She?

By: Lyudmyla Pavlyuk, for CuPol

In the early days of this marathon electoral race, whispers of a “Ukrainian Obama” were uttered in the political discourse. Young, reserved, confident, and an expert in social know-how, the 35-year-old Arsenii Yatseniuk appropriated the image of the American president and symbolized the change and true fulfilment of the Orange Revolution after years of internecine feuds.

This was confirmed, and even propagated, by western media including The Financial Times. Ukraine needed reform, and therefore Arsenii would be indispensable for Ukraine’s political future with his Front of Change.

After a promising start to his campaign, the voters soon abandoned their support for Arsenii
who had only taken the fourth position in the first round, after Serhii Tihipko. How would Ukraine live without its Obama, without a candidate inspiring “hope” and “change”? From the outset, the question of a “Ukrainian Obama” is a bit artificial — Ukraine not only occupies a different time-space dimension than America, but it follows its own rhythm.

Yulia Tymoshenko is not an analogue to Obama, but rather a counterpoint to him. Compromised by scandals and tied to oligarchs with shadowy reputations, Tymoshenko’s opponents sometimes characterized her as a feminine emotional onslaught, who according to Yanukovych, belonged in the kitchen.

Yet similarities are to be considered: unabashed populism, unprecedented charisma, confidence on the international stage, and a non-accentuated accomplishment as a minority in power. Throughout the election, Yulia’s charisma proliferated with the same ease – half technological and half irrational – as the iconic image of hope encompassed by Barack Obama and his leap to success.

The concept of change encoded in electoral messages of the current prime minister is of a different nature than those suggested by the new generation of politicians. In fact, this Tymoshenko campaign does not stress change, unlike Obama in 2008 or Yushchenko-Tymoshenko in 2004. Rather than “change,” the battle-hardened Tymoshenko symbolizes salvation through adaptive reactions and situational flexibility. Yet if survival requires change, Tymoshenko will let them happen. Even Euro-Atlantic integration, a prospect with multiple challenges, could receive a fresh turn and stimulus for development in her presidential future.

Tymoshenko’s “change” is the ability to embrace a number of mutually exclusive and symbiotic approaches — a second “orange” term and pragmatism with Russia, social populism and selective privileges for oligarchs, European integration and an egocentric approach distrustful of pessimism from Brussels. She is as good of a player in the new game of balance (“to be and not to be”) as is her performance in the usual games of the radical opposition (“to be or not to be”).

If Obama embodies efficiency and political culture despite his faults, Yulia’s personality retains quite a lot of archaic features. Ukrainian society did not facilitate bringing up such leaders’ habits as keeping the word and politically correct treatment of opponents. In spite of everything, Yulia Tymoshenko has a chance to become the “Ukrainian Obama.” She needs only one thing for this — namely to win. The first round of elections left Yulia Tymoshenko to replenish her reserves of political capital. To outrank her competitor by 1%-1.5% in the second round will not be easy, but anything is possible. Whether she attracts these votes is certainly the main plot of this election.

The prospect of a slim margin of victory kept Yulia Tymoshenko creative and active during the last weeks prior to the second round. The campaign slogan “She works” best described the modus operandi during the inter-election period. In contrast, Yanukovych, with a ten percent lead after the first round, found himself in a more privileged position, a feeling of psychological comfort to him. Yulia took part in the presidential debate-turned-monologue, while Yanukovych relied on the heavyweight quantitative status of his south-eastern electoral base and could afford to boycott the prime time debate.

In the last phase of the campaign, both candidates spoke about a “new course” by linking Ukraine’s future with their respective images and names. They cultivated a confrontational spirit and style. Yanukovych habitually promised to save the country from the compromised orange leaders. Tymoshenko was traditionally unceremonious in calling Yanukovych her personal enemy and an enemy of Ukraine. Conceptually their strategies were divergent Yanukovych’s PR menu served heaping portions of social populism to daily TV audiences. Tymoshenko seemed concerned with highlighting the values that would help her rally the orange electorate who voted for Yushchenko and Yatseniuk in the first round.

One Tymoshenko billboard read “God Save Ukraine” and depicted Yulia with an orange scarf and a red carnation in hand, approaching the Berkut riot police of autumn 2004 armed with metal shields and black helmets. Recasting this image from the glory days, however, was not easy given the former orange team’s self-compromising collisions. On the other hand, the sentiment of the common revolutionary past remained Yulia’s only link to potential voters representing the national-democratic electorate. Yulia’s reminder about the peaceful Maidan was not only a tribute to the past but also a hint of the future.

In the final days before the vote, Maidan was used as an instrument of symbolic mobilization. Yanukovych in the 2010 campaign actively used the “mirror message” principle in his campaign by copying Yushchenko’s major slogan in 2004 “Yanukovych is our president.” Part of his campaign strategy was to monopolize concern about electoral fraud and falsification. Yanukovych billboards called to prevent and stop falsifications and posted a hotline number for voters to report electoral violations. But this idea did not provide the leader of the Party of Regions with a complete psychological alibi.

Changes to the electoral law, approved by the Verkhovna Rada days before the second round vote, created a chance for Yulia Tymoshenko to corner concern regarding voter fraud and retake the issue from her opponent. “Yanukovych does not believe in victory without falsifications and employs the methods of the 2004,” said Tymoshenko, calling on the president “not to give a death sentence to Ukrainian democracy” and protect “the last hope for the state, an honest election.” In this perspective, Maidan and “God Save Ukraine” took center stage after a campaign marked by fashionable and secular images.

In a highly competitive situation where too much depended on the distribution of votes, “left over” Yushchenko, Yatseniuk, and Tihipko, Yulia’s strategists worked hard to revitalize the concept of a consolidation of “democratic forces.” While some Ukrainian intellectuals chose to remain sceptical of both candidates in order to avoid self-deception and pave the way for future criticism, a considerable part of the national-democratic representatives offered their direct support to Tymoshenko. In their view, Yanukovych’s electoral win would be a huge punitive action for the society and a throwback. While Tymoshenko is associated with “nobody perfect” excuses and “the lesser of two evils,” she simultaneously offers a diverse and hopeful option over her main contender.

Ukrainian writers, politicians, and dissidents — whose names are connected with the emergence of the independent Ukrainian state — personally appeared before the cameras to enhance the “national” and “pro-European” connotations of Tymoshenko’s image as “the Ukrainian president” who would stand for the European choice and an alternative to the international isolation of Ukraine.

But to enter the international arena as Ukraine’s leader, “the Ukrainian Obama,” she first needs a domestic approval. Slogans called on the electorate to “Help her!” According to the campaign ads, “Yulia will win if the people help.” This slogan resonates with the constitutional principle “The people are the main source of power in Ukraine.” Realization of this principle comes back to the 2004 campaign.  This is the main truth that the society has learned since that time.

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