A HERO’S RETURN
After walking down the plane, Savchenko threw herself on the ground and kissed the earth, then walked barefoot across the runway to hundreds of journalists. She spoke rapidly and forcefully in her usual blunt way, warning reporters not to touch her and not to approach too closely. “Step back if you want me to say anything. I have spent two years in a small cell,” she shouted.
She was equally tough to her party leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. When Tymoshenko reached to embrace her and give her flowers, Savchenko stepped back, saying: “We are not that close!” She also refused flowers. Tymoshenko, a veteran of the Ukrainian politics, has been somewhat taken aback. President Petro Poroshenko, who hoped that Savchenko’s return could give a boost to his falling popularity, hailed her homecoming as a new hope and decorated Savchenko with the nation’s highest award.
CHALLENGE TO UKRAINE’S POLITICAL ELITES
Savchenko’s charisma and broad popularity can now make her a rallying figure for all those who are dissatisfied with Poroshenko and other members of the ruling political class. Many Ukrainians blame the president for the sagging economy, plummeting living standards and his inability to combat official corruption. Some members of volunteer battalions, who like Savchenko fought in the east, have accused the Ukrainian leader of being too weak in defending Ukraine. They see the February 2015 Minsk agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany, as a betrayal of national interests. Thousands of torch-bearing volunteers walked recently across Kiev in a dramatic demonstration, warning Poroshenko that he will be chased from power like his Moscow-friendly predecessor if he tries to implement the Minsk deal, which requires Ukraine to offer broad autonomy to the east along with an amnesty to the rebels. Some Ukrainian political forces, including Tymoshenko’s party to which Savchenko belongs, are also pushing for early parliamentary elections in the hope of increasing their representation as the popularity of Poroshenko’s party and its allies has dwindled.
Savchenko could now become a voice for hard-line nationalists and others who are pushing for new elections. She immediately made it clear though that she wants the front seat for herself. At her first press conference, she didn’t hide her ambitions. Asked if she wants to run for the top job, she replied: “Ukrainians, if you want me to become president, I will become president.” A new political turmoil in Ukraine would likely deal a devastating blow to its moribund economy and its stability. It would be welcome news for Putin, who has sought to cast Russia’s neighbor as a failed state run by virulent nationalists who reject any reasonable compromise and refuse to fulfill the Minsk agreement. It could also make it more difficult for the U.S. to maintain the pressure on the EU to continue sanctions against Russia, which are linked to the Minsk deal.
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