A 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.
Nouveau Stalinism (my creation) as opposed to Stalinism is a much better designation to describe some contemporary politicians around the world. Whether in business or politics, I use this term to describe entities that promote toadies over talent with a supreme duce at the helm. In this environment, the domineering leader is marked by his/her Machiavellian ability to pull strings, while shifting seamlessly from one position to another. In a nouveau Stalinist environment, dissidents aren't jailed or beaten. Rather, they're excluded from the process. Opponents suffer political deaths as opposed to actually being killed.
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.
Galicia's overall small numbers in Ukraine limit its clout. Galician nationalists aren't pleased about having to accept other regions outside of Galicia as the sources for electable Ukrainian Presidents. In 1994, Galicia grudgingly supported Leonid Kravchuk because he was seen as less pro-Russian than his main opponent, Leonid Kuchma (at the time, Kravchuk ran on an anti-Russian platform). Five years later, Galicia overwhelmingly voted to reelect Kuchma, who ran against a weak Communist candidate in Petro Symonenko. During the so called "Orange Revolution" of 2004, I recall how many Galician Ukrainians were infatuated with Tymoshenko. Her appointment as prime minister under Viktor Yushchenko's presidency was popular in Galicia. Now, across Ukraine, there's great apprehension about Yushchenko's presidency. Yushchenko's party finished third in the just completed Rada (parliament) election, with Tymoshenko's party finishing second to Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
Yushchenko's sacking of Tymoshenko as prime minister paved the way for her to pursue a more independent political path. Like Yushchenko, the ambitious Tymoshenko hails from eastern Ukraine, where her Soviet era manner was very much within the realm of acceptability. Enter the Gorbachev period and those two embrace market reform.
In the recently completed Rada election, Yushchenko's own nationalist credentials gave him the upper hand over Tymoshenko in Galicia. In the 1980s, Yuschenko's wife Katherine Chumachenko (an American by birth) directed the Galician dominated anti-Russian "Captive Nations Committee" (see this British Helsinki Human Rights Group report as well as this statement from the Congress of Russia Americans).
Tymoshenko's "nationalism" proved insufficient for the Galician mindset. In her brief tenure as prime minister, she advocated that Ukraine should wait to join NATO until Russia follows suit. This isn't a popular view in Galicia. On the whole, that region sees Russia as a persistent and inherent adversary of the West. Another non-Galician trait of Tymoshenko is her repeated praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on Russia's oligarchs. This is ironic, considering how many Ukrainians view her as an oligarch.
After the Soviet breakup, Tymoshenko's success in state enterprises led to her being derisively being nicknamed the "Gas Princess." Her sudden acquisition of wealth no doubt involved some shady deals, but a good number of Ukrainians admire Tymoshenko for succeeding in an imperfect system. Others loathe her as a symbol of corrupt politics posing as the champion of democratic reforms.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst whose commentary has appeared in Eurasian Home, Johnson's Russia List, Intelligent.Ru, The Moscow Times, New York Times and Newsday.