KIEV, Ukraine — What is Yulia Tymoshenko’s endgame?
The combative Ukrainian prime minister claimed in a televised address on Saturday evening that she lost the country’s Feb. 7 presidential run-off election only through fraud and would contest the results in court. More than 1 million votes were falsified, she said.
The following day, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission proclaimed her challenger, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych, the official victor by a margin of 3.5 percent — 48.95 percent to 45.47 percent — or more than 800,000 votes.
Both camps are rushing now to outflank the other. Tymoshenko’s supporters say that their aim is to annul the election outcome before Yanukovych is sworn in as president. Tymoshenko herself presented evidence — including nine volumes of documents and video recordings — to the deciding legal body today.
On the same day, however, parliament, led by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in a thin majority, set his inauguration for Feb. 25.
It appears at first glance that Tymoshenko is prepared to pull out all the stops to prevent her longtime rival Yanukovych from claiming his victory. The alternative, she claimed, was “a country where dictatorship and lawlessness reign.”
“I want to clearly state: Yanukovych is not our president,” she said in her live televised statement over the weekend. “And no matter how the situation unfolds, he will never become the legitimately elected president of Ukraine.”
But some observers believe that Tymoshenko is in fact bluffing, as she understands that she cannot overturn the election results.
Part of her problem is that international community is already lining up behind Yanukovych’s presidency. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, the main international election monitoring groups, reported no major violations and called the contest “impressive display of democratic elections.”
They distanced themselves from Tymoshenko post-election as well, issuing a statement that the organization, contrary to the prime minister’s claims, would not support her claims in court.
The OSCE “has no information or evidence of any fraud in the election,” Joao Soares, head of the OSCE’s short-term observer mission, said in a statement on Monday, adding however that, “as a candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko has the right to submit any complaints about the election to the court.”
(Tymoshenko in fact said that her legal challenge was supported by “individual observers from the OSCE” who “expressed their willingness to appear in the courts on our side with videos and their assessment that there was systematic fraud during the election in Ukraine.”)
Yanukovych so far has also received congratulations from United States President Barack Obama, Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.
Medvedev in his congratulatory letter (excerpts from which are available on the official Kremlin website) invited Yanukovych to Moscow. He also apparently could not conceal his joy at the victory of the Russia-friendly Yanukovich and took one final dig at outgoing Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, with whom the Kremlin maintained poisonous relations.
“The election … confirmed Ukrainians’ desire to end the historically doomed attempts to sow discord between our peoples and their sincere wish to strengthen our good-neighbourly relations,” the letter read.
So why is Tymoshenko to all appearances trying to annul the election when in fact, as in the words of Yuri Yakymenko, director of the Razumkov think tank in Kiev, this is “practically impossible”?
The first option, of course, is that she is dead serious and will stop at nothing — right or wrong, and regardless of its impact on Ukraine's political stability — in her quest to become president.
It is more likely, however, according to Yakymenko and others, that she has to back up her accusations with real evidence, otherwise she loses political face.
And more importantly, Tymoshenko may currently be trying to carve out as much political space as possible as a leader of a strong and vocal opposition and possibly reaching a compromise to preserve her position as prime minister. If Yanukovych’s victory stands — as it most likely will — his mandate is still razor thin, drawn overwhelmingly from the country’s Russian-speaking industrial east and south. Tymoshenko, vanquished or not, is still the preferred politician for central and western Ukraine.
“Basically it’s a kind of political weapon in the negotiation process after the election,” said Olexiy Haran, director of the School of Policy Analysis at the Kiev Mohyla Academy.
“In order to find compromises, it’s important that Mr. Yanukovych and the Party of Regions don’t see this as a zero-sum game,” Haran added. “The whole of Ukrainian politics is organized so that it is necessary to have compromises.”