Yulia Tymoshenko has lost none of her oratorical powers.
As soon as Ukraine’s former prime minister was released from prison on February 23, she flew to Kiev to address thousands of protesters who for weeks have occupied the city’s Independence Square. Speaking from a wheelchair because of her back problems, Tymoshenko urged people to continue the demonstrations. She also vowed to reenter politics, earning loud cheers from the crowd.
But if Tymoshenko is serious about playing a role in Ukrainian politics, she cannot afford to repeat the mistakes she made when she was first prime minister in 2005 and again between 2007 and 2010.
Then, she quarreled with other prodemocracy leaders, squandering the gains of the country’s Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 through infighting and intrigue. She also failed to introduce any serious economic, political, or social reforms. And she pursued politics that sharpened polarization in Ukraine.
Now, Germany, Poland, and France have forged a deal for Ukraine that includes early presidential elections, a return to the 2004 constitution, and an independent inquiry into the use of violence by the security forces. If that agreement is to work, Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders must embrace the politics of unity and inclusion, not division and revenge.
That will be difficult to achieve after the terrible violence and deaths of the past week—not to mention years of corruption and false promises. Ukrainians want results, not egos.
Germany and Poland in particular will continue to play a crucial role.
Berlin has considerable scope for influencing the Ukrainian opposition. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has some sway over Tymoshenko, whose release from prison she had long supported. On February 23, Merkel spoke to Tymoshenko and to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Merkel may not like Putin, but she knows his support for the new order in Ukraine is fundamental. Germany and Russia both have much to lose if this deal unravels.
So has Poland. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, was instrumental in brokering the deal between then president Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. Warsaw’s support is needed to help keep Ukraine’s opposition united and Russia on board.
That might be easier now that Yanukovych has left Kiev after Ukraine’s parliament voted on February 23 to strip him of his powers. But Sikorski is well aware of how the opposition has been radicalized and how vulnerable eastern Ukraine—a part of the country that traditionally looks toward Russia—must now feel.
Many people in the east regarded the protesters in Kiev as Western stooges and will find it difficult to trust the opposition leaders. Sikorski will have to convince Ukraine’s new leadership that now is the time to reach out to that part of the population.
In this, the Polish foreign minister can draw on his own country’s experience at the end of the Cold War. Even though the Communists and the Kremlin had imposed martial law on Poland to crush the independent Solidarity movement, in 1989 the country’s leaders opted for an inclusive, transitional government until free and democratic elections were held. That decision was crucial for Poland’s peaceful path to democracy.
Of course, Ukraine is different and angrier. But if the new leadership in Kiev gives in to the temptation of revenge, it will play into the hands of Russia and die-hard Yanukovych supporters. Russia has stopped the $15 billion loan it had granted to Yanukovych last November just before he rejected a trade and association agreement with the EU. Yet Putin must have seen the dangerous possibility of Ukraine lurching into civil war. That could hardly have served Moscow’s interests.
As for the EU, it needs to understand that throwing money at Ukraine is not a panacea. Nor is it enough to issue bland statements about how the association accord is still on the table. Yes, Ukraine needs financial assistance after years of corruption, abuse of state assets, neglected infrastructure, and oligarchs’ indifference to the fate of their country. Yes, Ukraine needs a perspective. But what Ukraine needs much more is for Ukrainians themselves to grasp that these “revolutions” cannot be repeated over and over with nothing to show for it.
The opposition and what is left of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions need a reckoning of the state of the economy and how much money has been siphoned off. Then they need to decide, together, where they want to go. They also need a transparent and accountable overhaul of the security forces and a complete dismantling of the titushky, the hired thugs the government brought in to shoot and beat demonstrators.
Above all, Ukraine’s new leaders need to decide whether they want a stable, democratic country or a dysfunctional one sustained by cronyism, corruption, and manipulation by oligarchs.
The tasks are huge and will take a long time to accomplish. But they should not prove impossible if the political will is there. Ukraine, together with Germany, Poland, and Russia, must realize that the hard work has only just begun.
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