Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 86

According to recent polls, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has greatly benefited from the Orange Revolution and the ensuing popular optimism. She and her Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are very popular now, three months after she became prime minister and a year ahead of the next parliamentary elections. Meanwhile President Viktor Yushchenko’s new endeavor — People’s Union Our Ukraine (NSNU) — does not seem capable of inheriting the popularity of its predecessor, the Our Ukraine Bloc. If this trend continues, Tymoshenko may try to go it alone in the elections because she would still have to play the role of a junior partner in any alliance with President Yushchenko.

A poll conducted by the Barometer sociological service in April revealed that the Tymoshenko Bloc’s popularity has more than doubled since February, growing from 6.6% to 15.4%. Meanwhile the NSNU, which Yushchenko founded in early March with an eye toward next year’s parliamentary polls, had the backing of 20.7% of Ukrainians. This was considerably lower than Our Ukraine’s 32.3% in February. Last week Barometer and the Sofia and Penta think tanks jointly released the results of an opinion poll that showed popular trust in Tymoshenko at 50.5%. A somewhat earlier poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology had produced even more stunning figures. According to that survey, popular trust in Tymoshenko equals that of Yushchenko: 54.2% of Ukrainians “supported Tymoshenko’s activities” against Yushchenko’s 54%.

Tymoshenko’s popularity has not grown by accident. Though her record as prime minister has not been objectively strong, she has been using the strength of television and her populist rhetoric to full effect. She was the only top official to publicly back a controversial appreciation of the hryvnia on April 20-21. While Yushchenko and especially Economics Minister Serhiy Teryokhin sharply criticized the central bank’s move, Tymoshenko came forward to defend the bank, saying that the currency was strengthening along with the government (see EDM, April 25). Tymoshenko publicly claimed credit for negotiating lower gasoline prices with Russian oil companies, though later, in an interview with Ukrayina moloda, Yushchenko revealed that he was actually the one who settled the gasoline price problem in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 20. Tymoshenko also promised to lower meat prices on the domestic market, blaming market traders, rather than high inflation and inefficient agriculture, for high prices. Her widely publicized idea of government tenders to buy meat directly from farmers in order to bring the prices down, however, has been a total failure, as farmers have not hurried to sell meat cheaply. But this policy initiative failed to produce a good TV story and did not garner public attention.

Many of Tymoshenko’s mistakes as prime minister go unnoticed by the general public. And Yushchenko, wanting to maintain the unity of the governing coalition ahead of the elections, abstains from openly criticizing Tymoshenko. In fact, summing up the Cabinet of Ministers’ meeting on April 27 he, in his own words, “gave the highest assessment” of the Tymoshenko cabinet’s performance. Replying to this comment, Tymoshenko emotionally revealed before television cameras that those were “the most pleasant words” that she had heard from Yushchenko since the beginning of April. Her timeline recalls that Yushchenko unexpectedly cancelled Tymoshenko’s scheduled trip to Moscow in mid-April, prompting the Russian mass media to circulate rumors of Tymoshenko’s imminent dismissal. Both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko promptly denied the gossip.

Public praise from Yushchenko contributes to Tymoshenko’s growing popularity. This naturally makes Tymoshenko’s bloc, directly associated with her because it carries her name –Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc — more popular. In the meantime Yushchenko’s NSNU continues to suffer from an identity crisis. Unlike Tymoshenko’s party, it does not carry the Yushchenko “brand name.” At the same time, the major right-of-center parties that had formed the core of Our Ukraine — the Ukrainian People’s Party of Yuriy Kostenko and the People’s Movement of Ukraine — have remained outside the NSNU. Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk’s Our Ukraine party is still negotiating a merger with the NSNU, apparently seeking better terms. This horse-trading has failed to strengthen the NSNU, whose problems become more pronounced against the background of the Tymoshenko Bloc’s growing popularity. At the NSNU’s founding congress in March, Yushchenko advertised an alliance with the Tymoshenko Bloc for the 2006 parliamentary elections. It was quite obvious then that Tymoshenko’s party would be the junior partner. Two months after the Yushchenko party’s creation, Tymoshenko’s party looks too popular — and Tymoshenko herself too ambitious — to agree to that secondary role.

(Interfax-Ukraine, April 14; Zerkalo nedeli, April 16; Inter TV, April 27; proua.com, Ukrayina TV, Ukrayina moloda, April 28)