Eleventh Hour

Ukraine’s Iron Lady Refuses to Give Up

With ‘chocolate king’ Petro Poroshenko running away in the polls, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko made a last-ditch effort to insist Ukraine needs spicy, not sweet.

POOL New/Reuters

Ukraine may be shaken by civil conflicts and political battles, but the choices in Sunday’s presidential election somehow still took a folksy flavor: as if deciding between two foods, it narrowed to a decision between chocolate and pepper. Chocolate, in Ukrainian political parlance today, has come to stand for putting an end to the separatist crises in east by quickly installing a chocolate factory owner as president in just one round of voting. Pepper, a phrase drawn from a quip by another contender, means a second round in the presidential election, to be held in June.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister whose nickname is Iron Lady Y., said of her competitor, the confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko: “Today, Ukraine needs more pepper and spices than chocolate.” Tymoshenko spoke Saturday at a meeting with America’s former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and representatives from two American pro-democracy groups.

Poroshenko is known as Ukraine’s Willy Wonka, a cautious billionaire who held ministerial posts under a number of Ukrainian presidents. The clear favorite in all of the presidential polls, his approval rating was over 20 percentage points higher than Tymoshenko’s. With such a massive lead, he refused to appear publically at televised debates against the Iron Lady Y.

Poroshenko explained on Friday, on the television show Freedom of Speech, that at the time when the country was at war, “to quarrel between ourselves would be serving the interests of our enemies.” Cautious tactics were what originally won Poroshenko his popularity. In the midst of the revolution, when the trio of its leaders from parliamentary opposition parties struggled to translate the protests into political gains, taking multiple unpopular steps, signing agreements and meeting with hated the hated president, Viktor Yanukovych, Poroshenko stayed on the sidelines.

After the Euromaidan’s victory, the Chocolate King seemed the least irritating, balanced and stable prospect, compared to the frazzled street protest leaders; besides, he was associated with over 300 different kinds of candies and cakes made at his factory, which all Ukrainians know. The main message of his presidential campaign was “the new way of life” for Ukraine as a part of Europe, but with hopes to establish peace with the Kremlin and put an end to the unrest in the east of the country. Tymoshenko’s image is, in contrast, nothing but fierce.

“If Poroshenko is afraid of fighting a woman, nobody would believe he could beat up Putin!” Tymoshenko’s right hand and former member of parliament, Hrihorit Nemyria, told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “Under his rule Ukraine will always stay in a gray zone, not only unable to compete with Russia, but even too weak to defend itself.”

The Iron Lady saw the core idea of her leadership and presidential campaign in defending Ukraine from Russia. One of key figures of young intellectuals behind the Maidan’s revolution, Mustafa Nayeem, noted “a sharp change in Tymoshenko’s image two days before the elections,” posting a photograph of Tymoshenko’s new style on Facebook: a Roman helmet to replace her classical crown of a thick blond braid. She ran as the candidate ready to fight the Russians—a curious political strategy, considering that fighting Russia is something almost nobody in Ukraine wants, if it can at all be avoided.

The election will end with one round if a single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. Convinced that Sunday would not be the last day for the presidential race, Tymoshenko, the experienced warrior of political battle fields, came up with a plan to promote a referendum on NATO membership on June 15, the planned day of the potential second round, to force the issue of defense against Russia into the debate.

She believed it was time to ask Ukraine’s public to join NATO, though of course this only risks escalating the fight in the east today, and accession is in any case a years-long proposition on a timeframe beyond the current conflict. Joining NATO is the only solution for Ukraine’s continual security troubles, “to start a long journey, it’s worth making one step,” Nemyra said, echoing Chinese philosophy.

The growth of pro-NATO public opinion supported the idea: social polls by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiative Foundation demonstrated that the number of Ukrainians approving the idea of joining NATO increased from nine percent before Russia annexed Crimea to 34 percent in May, though still well short of a majority.

Irina Bekeshkina, the director of the DIF, confirmed that there was a 50-50 chance of the election going into a second round, and the outcome depended on the 16 percent of the population still uncertain about their choice. The only thing clear is that the majority of the country, feeling scared and heartbroken by the increasingly sad news of dozens of people dying in the conflict on the east, prefer peace to war. “Tymoshenko miscalculated the public tendencies, that was why she lost people’s support. Between a peacemaker candidate, Poroshenko, and the warrior, Tymoshenko, Ukraine will be choosing Poroshenko,” Bekeshkina said.

But Yulia Tymoshenko, the inspiration of Orange Revolution, the survivor of a prison term, of constant attacks by her opponents and of a recent back surgery, had ingredients in her recipe of political struggle that have surprised her nation many times.

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On the night before election day, Poroshenko was watching Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Kiev’s hip art gallery Mystetski Arsenal, while Tymoshenko was boarding a plane to fly and vote in the troubled east.