The View From Here: The Savchenko Conundrum

Volodymyr Kish.

Last week, Russia’s latest Tsar, Vladimir Putin, finally decided to release Nadiya Savchenko from imprisonment, and thereby end the political and legal farce that he had been perpetrating for the past two years. Despite the fabricated or non-existent evidence, and the blatant disregard for any of the basic principles of judicial process, it had long ago been clear that, aside from his credulous and subjugated minions, no one else in the world was buying his ridiculous claims of her being a murderer or war criminal. Many political experts on the situation believe that he had created a no-win situation for himself, and was now cutting his losses.

On this point, I am not so sure. Now that Nadiya is back home, the Ukrainian political scene is faced with an interesting conundrum. Her unflinching patriotism and defiance of the Russian bear has undoubtedly made her the most popular and revered individual in Ukraine. Her political capital is immense.

It was therefore interesting to observe how, when Nadiya returned to Kyiv, all of Ukraine’s high and mighty tried to bask in her reflected glory. Yulia Tymoshenko wasted no time to try and entrench her by her side, since Savchenko was elected in absentia to Ukraine’s parliament under Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party banner. There was Tymoshenko at the airport with flowers in hand, all ready for a triumphal sisters-in-arms welcome. Savchenko, knowing better, was polite, but notably reserved, refusing to play the game.

President Poroshenko fared no better. Falling significantly in the polls in recent months, he was hoping for some kudos and badly needed positive PR as the valiant rescuer of Nadiya from her unjust imprisonment. Alas, the grandly staged welcome and awarding of a heroes medal again only elicited the barest of acknowledgements from the obviously tired and stressed Savchenko, who instead apologized to the Ukrainian people for being free while many of her fighting compatriots were still languishing in Russian prisons.

It is obvious that the existing political elite will try and use Nadia Savchenko to further their political aims. It is also becoming abundantly clear that she is equally determined to be nobody’s pawn, and that she has some very clear goals of her own. First of all is a clear commitment to try and free all those Ukrainian fighters that are still in Russian captivity. Second is to win the so-called “hybrid” war with the Russians. Third, is to fulfill the goals of the Maidan’s Revolution of Dignity, especially the elimination of corruption and the institution of a true democratic and just government. She has repeated these aims several times since she returned.

What we do know from her two years of imprisonment is that she is as iron-willed, dedicated individualistic and uncompromising as they come. Her determination, courage and patriotism is unquestioned. She also has an instinctive talent for using media to project a powerful image of herself, and is a charismatic orator of the first order with a flair for the dramatic. These could serve her well should she choose to plunge into the murky and ruthless world of Ukrainian politics. Those same qualities though, could also be a liability in the world of politics where compromise, flexibility and consensus building play a key role in achieving results.

So what comes next? The most immediate impact of her return is that she has created havoc within the current political scene in Ukraine. Poroshenko’s stature and popularity have been falling for quite a while and there is no shortage of contenders jockeying for position to replace him, Tymoshenko, Saakashvili and Sadovyi being the most prominent. Savchenko’s return instantly places her at the forefront of who will shape Ukraine’s immediate future. Should she choose to create her own party or faction, she would undoubtedly become the front runner to replace Poroshenko. In an interview last week, she even stated that should the Ukrainian people ask her to do so, she would be prepared to become President. Should she choose not to, then she would undoubtedly play a significant role as a king maker.

The key question is whether her entrance into the Ukrainian political scene becomes a unifying, constructive element, or whether it serves to further divide and create even more chaos in an already troubled political arena. In that regard, perhaps that is what Putin had in mind when he freed Savchenko, figuring that the odds were good that her return would serve to further destabilize Ukraine at a critical time.

Only time will tell whether Savchenko has the vision and shrewdness to make the most of her current popularity and standing with the Ukrainian people. She has undoubtedly proven to be and exceptional hero and political symbol. Can she achieve the same measure of success as a politician? I somehow believe that we will not have to wait too long to learn the answer to that question.