The Mess Facing Ukraine’s New Leaders Is Even Worse Than the Last Time They Had a Revolution 

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Feb. 24 2014 1:38 PM

Who Would Want to Be President of Ukraine Right Now?

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Back in action.

Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

It should be a telling indicator of just what sort of situation Ukraine is facing that a former prime minister who served in a government that was not only the least popular in the country’s history, but may have been the least popular democratic government ever, now has a decent chance of returning to power, this time as president.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Imprisoned since 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison over the weekend. Tymoshenko says she is not interested in becoming interim prime minister—though her political ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who has been one of the three main leaders of the street protests, has a good shot at the job—but that also gives her a few months to recover her political standing and physical health before presidential elections—now scheduled for May 25.

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Tymoshenko served two terms as prime minister, in 2005 and between 2007 and 2010—terms that were marked by a long-running feud with her onetime Orange Revolution comrade, President Viktor Yuschenko, as well as the continuing decline of the Ukrainian economy, concerns over corruption, and disputes with Russia. In a 2009 Gallup poll, just 4 percent of Ukrainians approved of their government, which the organization described as “not only the lowest rating Gallup has ever measured in former Soviet countries, but also the lowest in the world.”

Just a year later, the Orange Revolution leaders were kicked out by voters, Yanukovych was elected, and the new president proceeded rolling back the country’s democracy, including jailing Tymoshenko on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Yuschenko testified against her at her trial.

Granted, the Orange coalition had a tough road ahead of it in 2005, but the situation is arguably even more difficult now. The acting president says $35 million in aid is needed to keep the country from defaulting on its debts. The economy is in grim shape. The country ranks 137th worldwide in per-capita output. Youth unemployment is about 20 percent. The nation is 144th out of 175 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The population is dropping precipitously.

Like in 2005, the opposition is divided into factions, this time with the ultranationalist far right playing a troublingly prominent role. Add to that the fallout from the country’s worst week of violence since independence, a fugitive former president on the run, the political resentment of the eastern half of the country, growing separatist sentiment in Crimea, and whatever Russia has planned to punish the country’s new leaders—Ukraine remains dependent on Russian energy—and it’s a bit hard to imagine why someone would want to be president of Ukraine right now.

Tymoshenko’s imprisonment may have been blatantly unjust, but there are also plenty of legitimate reasons to feel uneasy about the prospect of her return. At the very least, her extensive political baggage is going to only add to the difficulty of returning the country to some state of stable governance, but it’s not really clear there’s a better option available.