He probably won’t be the next president of Ukraine. But Sergiy Tigipko’s chances of becoming a prime minister soon are growing along with his popularity among voters in the Jan. 17 presidential race. He has rocketed to third place in a recent poll, though he is still far below front-runners Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych.
Plus, at 49, Tigipko looks good enough to be featured on the cover of Men’s Health magazine (December edition). Such publicity never hurts.
In an interview with the Kyiv Post, Tigipko said that – should he not win the presidency – he expects the next president to offer him a job, perhaps as prime minister. “Even if I decide not to support either one of them, they will still be making proposals,” Tigipko said. “The question is whether I will be willing to [work with them] in the conditions they suggest. I don’t have great desire to work with either one.”
Having worked as a deputy prime minister, a minister, a national bank chief, and a lawmaker, Tigipko is not a new face. But after taking a five-year break from politics to build up a banking empire which he then sold for an estimated $1 billion, voters seem to regard him as a fresh choice.
One November poll, conducted by FOM-Ukraine, showed that Tigipko has moved up to the third spot in the presidential race with 7.4 percent support. He squeezed former Speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk, who currently has the support of only 4.5 percent of those polled in mid-November. The poll was conducted among 1,000 city residents. He ranks a lot lower in national polls, however. Research and Branding nationwide poll released on Nov. 27 showed Tigipko had the support of 4.4 percent of the voters countrywide.
And, of course, none of the 18 candidates is polling within striking distance of Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.
Tigipko's recent surge suggests that people may have forgotten about his past, or have forgiven him. Tigipko, after all, chaired the presidential campaign in 2004 for Victor Yanukovych, who suffered a humiliating defeat after a fraud-marred vote was cancelled by the Orange Revolution and then the Ukrainian Supreme Court.
Tigipko has, indeed, worked with both front-runners. Besides his work with Yanukovych, Tigipko also chaired a business advisory council for Tymoshenko’s government between March 2008 and July 2009.
Yanukovych has already indicated that he is ready to consider both Tigipko and the other younger face of the presidential campaign, Yatseniuk, as potential employees in case he wins the presidency in the Jan. 17 election. “I am convinced that after the presidential election both Tigipko and Yatseniuk, and many, many other politicians, statesmen, will take a worthy place for serving our state. There will be enough work for everyone,” Yanukovych said on Nov. 25.
Tigipko is open to considering any offers. He plans to run in every election for at least the next five years, he said. To strengthen his position, he once again struck an alliance with the Labor Party, which he headed from 2000-2005. He was once again elected to lead the party on Nov. 28, which on the same day was renamed “Strong Ukraine,” echoing Tigipko’s promotion of himself as an energetic, physically fit leader.
Kost Bondarenko, head of the Gorshenin Institute consulting company, said that building a political party might be a better move for Tigipko than striving for an executive post in 2010, which is not likely to be long-lasting. “He would achieve much more if he concentrates on the party,” Bondarenko said.
But the “strong hand” image that he is cultivating does not convince everyone. Tigipko’s former allies from the Party of Regions say that his departure from the Yanukovych campaign 10 days after the second round of the rigged election on Nov. 21, 2004, show different traits. Hanna Herman, an outspoken Regions deputy, said she had “seen Tigipko run from the headquarters of Yanukovych after the second round of the presidential election.”
Tigipko said he quit in 2004 because the campaign “was already lost.” Looking back, he said that Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko and Yanukovych should have quit the race after the second round. “Falsifications took place in both camps. It would be fair if fraud from both sides had been recognized and both left,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Tigipko, however, is not enamored with either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko. “They have both been prime ministers,” he said. “I did not notice any complex strategy from either one of them; no steps towards democratization or market economy.”
Tigipko’s solution? Hire international consultants to develop strategies on every key issue that is needed to revive the country’s economy and raise living standards. Other ideas are long overdue, but also promised by others, such as hiring younger, better qualified managers to run ministries and other government agencies. “There are many exceptionally smart young people, who are working in the national bank, the Finance Ministry and other state agencies in [secondary] roles,” he said.
Tigipko joins most businesses in saying that simplification of licensing laws and cancellation of the value added tax are needed to curb corruption and improve the investment climate. Tax cuts, he said, could pull Ukraine’s economy out of the shadows.
But some economists say Tigipko’s economic program is populist, and that it would not achieve the desired effects. “His program suggests a series of new solutions, but fails to analyze the side effects and assess the economic risks,” said Mykhaylo Salnyklov, senior researcher at the Kyiv Economic Institute at the Kyiv School of Economics.
He doesn’t shy from some daring stands. Tigipko suggests changing the constitution through a public referendum to give more powers to the president. He also says prostitution in Ukraine should be legalized.
Of the 18 presidential candidates, Tigipko has also declared the biggest fortune. He had an income of Hr 20 million last year (about $2.5 million), and told the Kyiv Post he has spent roughly the same amount on his presidential campaign so far. “I will spend as much as I need,” he said. “This is my own money.”
And he’s got a lot of it. The Russian-language Korrespondent magazine estimated his fortune at $369 million in 2009. Tigipko first struck it rich in the early 1990s, when he built up Privatbank from scratch, turning it within years into one of Ukraine’s largest banking institutions. After entering politics in the late 1990s, he sold his minority stake to bigger tycoons who provided the seed capital to establish the bank, the so-called Privat group led by billionaire Igor Kolomoisky and partners.
In the late 1990s, Tigipko served in government and was seen as one of two young and modern-thinking politicians in Ukraine who was in favor among Western friends. But he went back into business, establishing his own bank and insurance group, TAS, while serving as head of the National Bank of Ukraine, which triggered opponents to cry foul about a conflict of interest. Tigipko stepped out of politics in 2004, putting all of his efforts into building up TAS, and sold the group’s bank operation in 2007 to Swedbank for an estimated $1 billion.
Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at email@example.com. Staff writer Nataliya Bugayova contributed to this story.