Don’t let her looks fool you. The woman of the moment in Ukraine, whose crown of braided golden hair is calculated to evoke mythical memories of rural strength, has always been a better icon than a politician.
When former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 53, addressed tens of thousands of people in Kiev’s Independence Square on Saturday night, many in the crowd were moved to tears. Only hours before she’d been serving a seven-year prison sentence under guard in a hospital far from the capital. Now, afflicted with crippling back problems, she spoke from a wheelchair, telling the crowd she drew strength from their bravery, their martyrdom. “You are heroes!” she cried. Her most bitter political enemy, President Viktor Yanukovych had meanwhile fled the capital.
A new chapter seemed to be opening in the political life of the country last night, and indeed it was. But as Ukraine moves toward new elections in the near future (most likely at the end of May), Tymoshenko’s not-so-pretty past may yet prevent her from winning the presidency she’s sought for so long.
In a country with endemic and rather extraordinary corruption—which is really the most important issue for many Ukrainians—Tymoshenko’s best hope may be that Yanukovych has left behind such obvious symbols of his stupid cupidity. On Saturday, the people of a nearly bankrupt nation flooded into his Yanukovych’s country estate to gaze in wonderment at the extravagances he left behind, from gilded bathroom fixtures to his own-brand vodka, terraced gardens, and a personal menagerie.
All that makes Yulia Tymoshenko’s alleged corruption look rather like ancient history, but it doesn’t erase the memories altogether. It is a fact she half-acknowledged when she apologized to the crowd in Kiev last night for the unspecified mistakes of the past and talked about turning the page.
Ukrainians remember that in the 1990s, before the braids, Tymoshenko was a shrewd businesswoman with dark hair and a dark side: tough, unrelenting, unforgiving, and in a league with then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. She amassed an enormous fortune in the natural gas business. People started calling her “The Gas Princess.” And there she was helped by the sweetheart deals Lazarenko allegedly sent her way.
Given all the talk that later charges against Tymoshenko were trumped up or falsified in the Ukraine, it’s probably important to know that her ally Lazarenko was prosecuted in the United States, where he was convicted and imprisoned for money laundering and other crimes. Tymoshenko was not charged in that case and she has denied wrongdoing, but she was named explicitly as part of the conspiracy detailed in the indictment.
“Lazarenko received money from companies owned or controlled by Ukrianian [sic] business woman Yulia Tymoshenko … in exchange for which Lazarenko exercised his official authority in favor of Tymoshenko’s companies, and … Lazarenko failed to disclose to the people and government of Ukraine that he was receiving significant amounts of money from these companies.”
Tymoshenko moved from business to politics when she entered parliament in 1996. Three years later, when Lazarenko fled the country (claiming people were out to kill him), Tymoshenko helped found the Fatherland Party on an anti-Lazarenko anti-corruption platform. She became deputy prime minister, overseeing the energy sector, in what proved to be a stormy political alliance with then-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. She also squared off against then-President Leonid Kuchma, who fired her and supposedly did his best to destroy her fortune. Her husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, was arrested for corruption. She was arrested for allegedly forging documents as part of one of her gas deals. She said the charges were politically motivated and the cases against both Tymoshenkos eventually were dropped. But the endless round of charges and countercharges continued.
All the while, the shadow of Russia loomed in the background, as Tymoshenko and Yushchenko staked out positions that were increasingly hostile to Moscow and seemed favorable to Europe. When contested elections led to mass protests in 2004, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko emerged as the leaders of what came to be called the Orange Revolution.
Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin during the campaign, most likely by allies of Moscow. He nearly died and his face was horribly pitted and scarred. But in the meanwhile, Tymoshenko had begun to cultivate her new iconic look, which sometimes made the two of them appearing together resemble Beauty and the Beast.
In fact, Tymoshenko had hired a public relations firm that quite consciously worked to re-make her image from the hard-bitten ice queen of the board room and parliament into a woman whose allure reminded Ukrainians of their beloved schoolmarms, saints, and fairy-tale princesses.
Yushchenko finally won the presidency in 2005 in a race against the pro-Moscow Yanukovych (after many recounts), and Tymoshenko became prime minister. But she quickly fell out with her erstwhile ally, who dismissed her government after a few months. She came back as prime minister from 2007 to 2010, which was right when the global economic crisis hit Ukraine full force. In the 2010 presidential elections she ran against Yanukovych, she lost, and in 2011, he saw to it she was jailed.
The charge this time around was that she exceeded her authority as prime minister by signing a new gas deal with Russia in 2009 that the rest of the cabinet opposed. Many observers think those charges really were trumped up: Tymoshenko may have made a bad deal, but not a criminal one.
As protests built over the last three months toward their violent crescendo, with dozens slaughtered in the street last Thursday, people naturally looked for inspiring leaders. Many carried posters showing Tymoshenko at her most radiant. On Friday, the restive Ukrainian parliament, now dominated by her political allies, voted to free her. On Saturday she was on her way back to Kiev.
So now Tymoshenko has returned to the square, to the flowers at the barricade where snipers shot down protestors, and to the crowds she calls heroes. Whether she will be able to lead them toward peace, stability—and Europe—is far from clear. But there’s no doubt that the fire of a hugely ambitious politician still burns hot behind the iconic face and hair of the fairy tale princess.