Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Yulia Tymoshenko: Mad hot or just mad and hot?

Like many Americans, I have a natural weakness for female activists and politicians in Warsaw Pact countries. There is something about a Slavic nationalist damsel being threaten the Russian Federation that brings out the righteous American "knight in shining armor" in me. I can't explain it.

One such damsel I've been watching closely is the beautiful, but controversial former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Before entering politics in the mid-1990s, Mrs. Tymoshenko served as president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, an energy company parceled off from the Soviet-Era Ukrainian Oil Company that most served as a middle-man for Russian oil and gas. She rose to prominence by backing Viktor Yushchenko during the 2004 Orange Revolution. When Yushchenko handily trounced his Kremlin-backed opponent Viktor Yanukovych December 2004 presidential run-off, he appointed her to be his first prime minister. She held the office for about nine months before her parliamentary coalition fell apart and she was dismissed.

What makes Mrs. Tymoshenko so controversial? Michael Averko over at the RussiaBlog characterizes the common criticism my Ukrainian friends give me:

Ukrainian-American acquaintance of mine recently likened Ukrainian political figure Yulia Tymoshenko to a Stalinist because the name of her party (Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc) has a cult of personality aspect. I nevertheless shy away from the loaded Stalinist label. Outside of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, I'm hard pressed to find a present day world leader who comes close to matching the Soviet dictator. Even Kim Jong Il falls well short of the ruthless standard set by “Uncle Joe.”

Politics is a business. Corporations are often named after their respective founders. For this reason, it's somewhat surprising to see so few political parties (the world over) named after the party leader. Like her or not, Tymoshenko has that charismatic touch.


I compare Tymoshenko to the late Slobodan Milosevic, because at one time or another, both leaders utilized Communist, pragmatist and nationalist positions for purely opportunistic reasons (on the Stalin label, Chicago Governor Rob Blagojevich erroneously linked Milosevic to Stalin). Whereas other politicians show a greater sincerity to a given ideology, the Tymoshenkos and Milosevics move in whatever direction they see fit for acquiring and maintaining power.

In the last few years, Tymoshenko has been described by some political observers as a Ukrainian nationalist. The Galician region of western Ukraine is a hot bed of a Ukrainian nationalism that favors separating Ukraine from Russia as much as possible. My disagreements with the Galician Ukrainian nationalist vision simultaneously recognizes that this point of view springs from true believers. Galicia's overall numbers in Ukraine limit its clout. This is made up in part by some zealous activists in that region, combined with its relatively large and passionate lobbying diaspora in the West. North America's image of Ukraine is greatly shaped by the transplanted Galician perspective. One which is disproportionate to the overall pro-Russian stance found in Ukraine itself.

This image of Mrs. Tymoshenko is only her vitriolic article in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs entitled Containing Russia. The bulk this article is behind a subscription wall, but I bet the Council on Foreign Relations won't mind if I reproduce a few of the juicier bits of her diatribe:

Sixty-one years ago, a telegram arrived at the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Its purpose was to examine the sources of the conduct of the men who ruled in the Kremlin. Its impact was immediate. The "Long Telegram," penned by a young diplomat named George Kennan, became the basis for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for the next half century.

Although the Soviet Union is long gone, the West is once again groping to understand what motivates the leaders in the Kremlin. Many believe that the principles behind Kennan's policy of "containment" are still applicable today -- and see a new Cold War, this time against Vladimir Putin's resurgent Russia, in the offing.

I do not believe that a new Cold War is under way or likely. Nevertheless, because Russia has indeed transformed itself since Putin became president in 2000, the problem of fitting Russia into the world's diplomatic and economic structures (particularly when it comes to markets for energy) raises profound questions. Those questions are all the more vexing because Russia is usually judged on the basis of speculation about its intentions rather than on the basis of its actions.


Russia's foreign policy has been equally troubling. Moscow has given Iran diplomatic protection for its nuclear ambitions, and Russian arms sales are promiscuous. The Kremlin has consistently harassed neighboring countries; former Soviet nations, such as Georgia, have faced near economic strangulation. In February, Putin spoke favorably about creating a "gas OPEC."

None of this should be surprising, for Putin's aim has been unvarying from the start of his presidency: restore Russian greatness. Unlike Boris Yeltsin, who accepted dissent as a necessary part of democratic politics -- it was, after all, as a dissenter from Mikhail Gorbachev's rule that he gained the presidency of Russia -- Putin was determined from the outset to curtail political opposition as an essential step toward revitalizing centralized power. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of Yukos Oil, for example, is in prison for daring to challenge the Kremlin's authority and perhaps aspiring to succeed Putin. Order, power (including the power to divide the spoils of Russia's natural-resource wealth), and reviving Russia's international influence, not democracy or human rights, are what matter in today's Kremlin.

The backgrounds of the people who make up Putin's government have something to do with this orientation. A study of 1,016 leading figures in Putin's regime -- departmental heads of the president's administration, cabinet members, parliamentary deputies, heads of federal units, and heads of regional executive and legislative branches -- conducted by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of Moscow's Center for the Study of Elites, found that 26 percent at some point served in the KGB or one of its successor agencies. Kryshtanovskaya argues that a closer look at these biographies -- examining gaps in resumés, odd career paths, or service in KGB affiliates -- suggests that 78 percent of the top people in Putin's regime can be considered ex-KGB. (The significance of such findings should not be exaggerated: former secret police may hold many of Russia's highest offices, but Russia is not a police state.)


As a convinced European, I support Germany and the EU in this effort. Relations with Russia are too vital to the security and prosperity of all of us to be developed individually and ad hoc. If there is one country toward which Europeans -- and, indeed, the entire West -- should share a common foreign policy, it is Russia. With high world energy prices allowing Russia to emerge from the trauma of its postcommunist transition, now is the time for a clear-sighted reckoning of European security in the face of Russia's renewed power. Relying on Russia's long-term systemic problems to curb its pressure tactics will not prevent the Kremlin from reestablishing its hegemony in the short run.

The article is clearly designed to hit all of today's hot button issues with Russia: the (show) trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a government run by the chekisti, the recent spate of thinly-veiled pipeline and production politics involving the energy giant Gasprom, Russian involvement in the breakaway provinces Abkhazia, South Ossetia (both in Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova), Nagorno-Karabak (Azerbaijian) and Crimea (Ukraine) -- she even throws in this great reference to the appeasement of Hitler to boot:

Unfortunately, political leaders usually have the least idea of what to do when the scope for action is greatest. By the time they have a better idea, the moment for decisive and effective action may have passed. In the 1930s, for example, the French and British governments were too unsure of Hitler's objectives to act. But their obsession with Hitler's motives was utterly misguided. Realpolitik should have taught them that Germany's relations with its neighbors would be determined by relative power, not German intentions alone. A large and strong Germany bordered to the east by small and weak states would have been a threat no matter who ruled in Berlin. The Western powers should thus have spent less time assessing Hitler's motives and more time counterbalancing Germany's strength. Once Germany rearmed, Hitler's real intentions would be irrelevant. This was Winston Churchill's message throughout his "wilderness years." But instead of heeding Churchill, the British and the French continued to treat Hitler as a psychological problem, not a strategic danger -- until it was too late. What matters in diplomacy is power, not the state of mind of those who wield it.

I think Churchill would be pleased to find out that everyone remembers his foresight in 1936, but easily forgets how he ordered the invasion of the Dardanelles that culminated in the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli. The diggers of ANZACs certainly remember. Hasn't anyone seen the movie? It was like one of Mel Gibson's first movies -- came out right between Mad Max and the Road Warrior.

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