Ukraine's Dangerous Game

Yulia Tymoshenko talks with FP about engaging the West, placating Russia, and trying to keep her country in one piece.

As Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko rushes out of her Kiev office to greet me, her tight handshake and tense smile make it clear that she didn't get to be the most powerful woman east of Berlin by being a soft character.

This is a tough day for her and an important time for Ukraine. Later she will speak before parliament to defend controversial new budget measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for unblocking a badly needed financial rescue package. The amount at stake is relatively small, a $1.8 billion second installment of a $16.4 billion loan. But without the IMF, there is little hope Ukraine will regain enough market confidence to roll over the $40 billion in bank loans and bonds coming due this year. By mid-April, Tymoshenko needs to push pension reform and higher gas tariffs through the legislature - hardly a comfortable position for a leading candidate in the presidential elections expected on Oct. 25.

The 2005 Orange Revolution made Tymoshenko an international media icon. With her fiery rhetoric and political savvy - not to mention her stunning looks and famously distinctive braids - she seemed destined to be the face of the post-Soviet world's new wave of democratic revolution.

Four years later, it's not so easy to be Yulia Tymoshenko. The adoring crowds in Independence Square are a distant memory. She feels under fire from all corners, most of all from her former Orange Revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko. She was late for our coffee conversation because she first needed to focus on this morning's attacks from the president, who accused her in parliament of running the economy into the ground. She is careful to avoid any explicit reference to him, but notes I am not here to please everybody. In attempting to manage Ukraine out of a crisis while attending to both her country's desire to rejoin Europe and its fear of an increasingly expansionist Russia, it's becoming more and more difficult to please anybody.

The global recession is turning conventional wisdom upside-down as even the IMF now calls for large deficit-spending policies (for advanced economies, at least). One might think the conditions imposed on Ukraine, where unemployment is rising fast and salary delays are now widespread, are too strict and socially painful. The hardship in turn could encourage political radicals and the pro-Russia Party of Regions of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

But Tymoshenko isn't complaining. You are never popular when you ask a sick person to undergo surgery, she says. But what has to be done, has to be done. Cooperating with the IMF requires a serious budget policy for any country. It's never easy. But it's a guarantee of stability.

The political challenges Tymoshenko faces as she struggles with Ukraine's financial crisis might be treacherous, but the subject matter, at least, is familiar. She received a typical Soviet-era education as an economist-cyberneticist -- Soviet-speak for management -- in Dnepropetrovsk, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian town where she was born in 1960. She started her career as an economy engineer at a local machine-building plant during the Gorbachev years. With the demise of the Soviet Union and national independence, she was quick to seize the opportunities of the new era. During the 1990s, she was a top manager at Ukrainian Petrol and United Energy Systems of Ukraine and is understood to have made a fortune at that time.

It was a tough, unsparing environment to prosper in, to say the least. Tymoshenko has come a long way from then. It is especially ironic that this businesswoman turned anti-Russian revolutionary is now disparaged by Yushchenko as a thinly disguised Russian pawn.

Not that dealing with Russia has gotten any easier. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not like Tymoshenko's recent deal with the European Union on the modernization of Ukraine's gas infrastructure, and Moscow is holding up a $5 billion loan to Ukraine to mark its dissatisfaction.

All this crossfire shows what I really stand for is our own national interest, she says. Then she is quick to add: The Russians worry that we are trying to privatize our pipelines by stealth, but that's not the case and would be illegal. We have to reassure them on that.

Tymoshenko returns frequently to the challenges presented by Ukraine's position between Russia and the European Union. There is no doubt we want to join the EU. At least 60 percent of our public opinion favors this option, and we are now closer to this goal than, say, one year ago. This policy must be the essence of all our actions, she says. But, she warns, it cannot succeed by confronting Moscow or ignoring its concerns.

This is balance-of-power politics of the post-Soviet, post-Georgia-war variety. To her critics, it looks a bit like squaring the circle. To her, it's simply a matter of recognizing reality. I try to defend our interests so that we can find a balance in our relations both with the EU and Russia, Tymoshenko explains, meaning she wants her country to get into the EU without giving the impression of antagonizing Russia.

Could the same strategy apply to Ukraine's relations with NATO? Here the prime minister sighs for a split second: There, it's more complex. It's not so much that she is frightened by Georgia's experience, something she never mentions though it's clearly on her mind. While recognizing it would be uncomfortable for Ukraine to remain in a void, outside all existing security systems, she still sees several political barriers between Kiev and NATO.

Although famous for her sharp tongue, Tymoshenko is treading carefully these days. The first problem she sees is that barely 25 percent of Ukrainians favor joining NATO. Even the president accepts we need to hold a referendum on this, she acknowledges.

The second problem is rather a carefully managed swipe at those Europeans cozying up a bit too much to Russia -- especially Germany and Italy, one suspects. In Tymoshenko's own words, There is no unanimity in the EU on Ukraine's joining NATO as we have not yet witnessed a favorable attitude in every country.

As Tymoshenko goes on, one cannot help but notice her trying to contain her anger when she feels misunderstood in her actions and purpose. She laughs softly at my attempts at humor, but when she finds my questions misjudge her intentions, she bursts out: It's not fair to say that!

In the same spirit, she reserves her harshest criticism for the G-20's grandstanding on protectionism: Everybody is pursuing some stronger or weaker form of protectionism. Some people create hurdles for foreign participation in tenders; others withdraw capital or create tariff and nontariff obstacles to goods. All this proves damaging to us all. But lofty declarations will not prevent it; we need effective rules, she says.

At the moment, Tymoshenko narrowly trails Yanukovych in opinion polls but remains far more popular than Yushchenko, whose support has fallen to the single digits. Nonetheless, she remains a controversial figure. In an identity-obsessed Ukraine that declared independence six times over the last 90 years, even her family origins fuel much debate. She grew up speaking Russian and perfected her Ukrainian only after she moved to politics in her 30s. Through a spokeswoman, she also doesn't comment on rumors that part of her family comes from Armenia. It's hard to imagine her receiving the kind of voter acceptance enjoyed by Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy with their foreign-born fathers.

Despite the sometimes harsh treatment from her constituents and the media, Tymoshenko's national pride and attention to the everyday lives of Ukraine's citizens remain intense. I experienced it myself when I mentioned in a story that Kiev stores were having a serious shortage of salt. Ukrainian TV had previously aired stories on locals hoarding salt in anticipation of inflation and salary cuts. I was called soon after by an angry Tymoshenko spokesperson: It's media speculation, nothing true. Did you try to buy salt in Kiev? I did last night: I found it. Immediately.

Why all this fuss over one anecdote in a foreign reporter's story? Tymoshenko has learned over the years that with countries -- as with their leaders -- image is everything.



Turkish Delight

How Obama became a smash hit in the country that gives the United States its lowest approval rating.

After charming his way through summits in Britain, France, and the Czech Republic, U.S. President Barack Obama ended his European tour in Turkey, where he needed every last ounce of his charisma (and had to do without the backup of his wife Michelle, who returned to Washington to be with their daughters).

The last eight years have been brutal on the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 exposed a deep rift between the two countries, with Ankara opposing the war and Turkey's parliament refusing to pass a motion that would have allowed U.S. troops to use the country as a launching pad for attacking the Saddam regime. Things have been even more dismal on the public opinion front. In a 2007 Pew Research Center public opinion survey, only 9 percent of Turks surveyed held favorable views of the United States, meaning that Turkey was the country with the least favorable view of the United States among the 47 countries and territories surveyed. (If it's any consolation for the United States, other surveys found that Turks seem to be a grumpy lot, holding generally unfavorable views of many other countries.)

America's fall from grace was reflected in Turkish popular culture. A 2005 Turkish bestseller, Metal Firtina (Metal Storm), envisioned Turks and Americans engaging in all-out war, the story ending with a nuclear device detonating in Washington. Kurtlar Vadisi -- Irak (Valley of the Wolves -- Iraq), a crassly anti-American and anti-Semitic 2006 film that became one of Turkey's best-grossing movies ever, saw a team of Turkish agents battling evil Americans in northern Iraq and a devious doctor (played by Gary Busey) who runs an organ-harvesting operation that relies on Iraqi corpses.

Yet Turkish public opinion might now be turning a corner. Obama's election and visit seemed to bring out a healthy dose of goodwill and excitement in Turkey. On the day of his arrival, Hurriyet, one of Turkey's largest newspapers, ran a large headline that said in English: Welcome, Mr. President (though adding in Turkish below the fold, But we have been offended for the last eight years). Two competing Istanbul pastry makers both came up with a flaky phyllo dough dessert called Baracklava. And for the last few weeks, a face that looks strikingly like that of Obama's has been staring from billboards across the country, part of an ad campaign for a low-interest account at one of Turkey's largest banks. Meanwhile, in a speech he gave in late March at Princeton University, Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign-policy advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that we might soon witness the dawning of a golden age in U.S.-Turkey relations. Our approach and principles are almost the same, very similar [to the United States'] on issues such as the Middle East, Caucasus, the Balkans, and energy security, he said.

The Obama administration also appears to have realized that a new approach is needed for Turkey, especially in terms of public diplomacy and reconnecting with the Turkish public. During the Bush years, U.S. officials only seemed to show up in times of crisis, their arrival usually creating a sense of dread that only increased tension, rather than easing it. This has already changed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Turkey last month mostly to just say hello and, as she explained, listen to what Turks had to say. In a radical -- and well-received -- departure from the way things had been done previously, Clinton appeared on a popular television chat show, Haydi Gel Bizimle Ol (Come and Join Us), similar to the popular American talk show The View. On the program, Clinton opened up to the four hosts about her family life and her challenged sense of fashion.

The contrast between Clinton's first trip as secretary of state to Turkey and the several frosty visits that her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, made in recent years, was striking.

Following in Clinton's footsteps, Obama made his own public-outreach effort, holding an Istanbul town-hall meeting with some 100 Turkish university students that was broadcast live on television. The event took place in a cultural center, a 17th-century Ottoman building that was once a cannon factory, and presented the U.S. president as the college professor in chief: pedagogic without being pedantic, using humor when he needed to, and taking advantage of even bad questions to raise the level of the discussion. Touching on everything from climate change to the Kurdish issue, Obama told the students that the image of America that they might have been getting from films or television shows was not the correct one. Sometimes it suggests that America has become selfish or crass and doesn't care about the world beyond its borders, Obama told the students. I'm here to tell you that's not the America I know.

We are still a place where anyone who tries can still make it. If that wasn't true, then someone named Barack Hussein Obama could not become president, the president added.

It's a different style, but I think it's effective, town-hall-meeting attendee Berna Ozkale, a 21-year-old senior studying chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, told the Christian Science Monitor. I went to an American high school in Istanbul and I have gone to the United States, but that doesn't mean I was happy with what America was doing and President Bush. ... All these students are here because they have hope in the new American president. ... I wouldn't have come if it was George [W.] Bush.

If there was a golden age in U.S.-Turkey relations, it was probably the several-day visit that then U.S. President Bill Clinton made to Turkey in 1999. Clinton is still fondly remembered for visiting an area outside Istanbul that had been hit by a devastating earthquake only a few months before and for delivering a rousing speech in parliament. Pictures of a smiling Clinton are still easy to find in the small shops in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, where the former president's image is often displayed as shorthand for We like Americans.

It's likely that Obama pictures will soon be on display in the bazaar. On a visit there during Obama's first day in Turkey, I spoke with Ismail Aksahin, a kilim rug merchant who has been working the Grand Bazaar since 1992. We are feeling good about Obama. Bush was a bad option for us for eight years. We feel about Obama the way we feel about Clinton.

If you had asked most of us here a year ago if we were ready to embrace America, everybody would have said, 'No,' he added, waving his hand dismissively.

Now the wind is blowing in a different direction.