Yulia Tymoshenko: Ukraine’s Savior or Foe?

The country’s former prime minister, dubbed “Putin with a braid,” has been released from prison, and she’s ready to join the opposition’s cause.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko delivers a speech in Kiev's Independence Square on Saturday, the day she was released from prison.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

The Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent fled his palace out­side Kiev this week­end, and his where­abouts are un­known. On the same day he left, 300 miles west of the cap­it­al, his ar­chrival was re­leased from a pris­on hos­pit­al.

The tim­ing was no ac­ci­dent. The same op­pos­i­tion move­ment that drove Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych out on Sat­urday led to a re­vi­sion of the coun­try’s crim­in­al code, set­ting former Prime Min­is­ter Yulia Ty­moshen­ko free after she served two and a half years for ab­use of power.

Ty­moshen­ko headed right to In­de­pend­ence Square, where pro-West­ern cit­izens and po­lice have been locked in deadly con­flict over the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment’s strong al­le­gi­ance to Rus­sia and weak ties to the European Uni­on.

“After what you did, Ukraine is already yours,” Ty­moshen­ko, in a wheel­chair due to severe back pain, told the 50,000 people gathered there. She called them “her­oes.”

Then, she switched gears. “Start­ing today, I am get­ting back to work,” she said. “I will not a miss a mo­ment to make sure that you feel happy in your own land.”

Ty­moshen­ko’s teary-eyed speech in In­de­pend­ence Square soun­ded to many like a pre­lude to a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and ru­mors are already swirl­ing that she will run in the newly an­nounced elec­tions in May. Her sup­port­ers in the op­pos­i­tion are en­er­gized about build­ing her cam­paign. But mean­while, her spokes­wo­man tells The New York Times that “it’s not time for this.”

Ty­moshen­ko’s de­tract­ors couldn’t agree more.

Ty­moshen­ko, fam­ous for her bright, blond locks and trade­mark peas­ant braid, is a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure in Ukraine, a politi­cian with au­thor­it­ari­an tend­en­cies who many say is just as cor­rupt and power-hungry as the rest of them. “Putin with a braid,” Ju­lia Ioffe writes in The New Re­pub­lic.

“You can’t stop her in any nor­mal polit­ic­al way,” Dmitry Vy­drin, who was Ty­moshen­ko’s close ad­viser for nearly a dec­ade, told Ioffe in a deeply re­por­ted 2010 story about the politi­cian. “You can’t beat her on TV, you can’t out-ar­gue her on the town square. If she had more bio­lo­gic­al time on earth, she’d be­come pres­id­ent of the Ukraine, pres­id­ent of the E.U., pres­id­ent of the U.S. The only thing that can stop her is Ty­moshen­ko her­self.”

Ty­moshen­ko, he said, be­lieves she is the re­in­carn­a­tion of Eva Per­ón, the former Ar­gen­tine first lady who used her beauty and cha­risma to climb the polit­ic­al so­cial lad­der. “She cop­ies her con­sciously and sub­con­sciously,” Vy­drin said.

Long be­fore she spoke in front of the op­pos­i­tion move­ment, Ty­moshen­ko was a bru­nette who spoke Rus­si­an rather than Ukrain­i­an and grew up poor. In the 1990s, she struck it rich in the coun­try’s no­tori­ously cor­rupt gas in­dustry, gar­ner­ing the nick­name “Gas Prin­cess.” She was once ar­res­ted after be­ing ac­cused of for­ging doc­u­ments for a gas deal, but the charges didn’t stick. (Pavlo Laz­ar­en­ko, her former busi­ness part­ner and one­time prime min­is­ter, was con­victed in the United States of money laun­der­ing, cor­rup­tion, and fraud with­in the gas sec­tor.)

Ty­moshen­ko was elec­ted to par­lia­ment in 1996, and then served as deputy prime min­is­ter for the fuel and en­ergy sec­tor un­der then-Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Yushchen­ko in 1999. After win­ning the Novem­ber 2004 elec­tion — a rigged race that was first called for Ya­nukovych and promp­ted wide­spread protests, known as the Or­ange Re­volu­tion — Yushchen­ko ap­poin­ted Ty­moshen­ko prime min­is­ter. The pair’s re­la­tion­ship quickly de­volved in­to bick­er­ing, and the pres­id­ent, jeal­ous of Ty­moshen­ko’s grow­ing pop­ular­ity, kicked her out of his ad­min­is­tra­tion and in­vited Ya­nukovych to re­place her.

The de­cision did not slow Ty­moshen­ko down, and she cam­paigned in the par­lia­ment. She formed her own party, lob­bied her par­lia­ment­ary en­emies for sup­port, and, two months later, after sev­er­al ne­go­ti­ations with the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment, man­aged to win her prime min­is­ter’s spot back.

Then came the 2010 elec­tions. Ukraine was deep in a two-year-old eco­nom­ic re­ces­sion, and the spark of re­volu­tion had fizzled out. Its cit­izens, des­per­ate for im­prove­ment in their daily lives, voted in the now-ous­ted Ya­nukovych, a politi­cian whose own polit­ic­al past was marked by jail time. Ty­moshen­ko, one of his op­pon­ents in the race, and her party boy­cot­ted his in­aug­ur­a­tion. Once in of­fice, Ya­nukovych ex­ac­ted his re­venge. Ukraine’s pro­sec­utor’s of­fice tried and sen­tenced Ty­moshen­ko to sev­en years in pris­on for ab­use of power and em­bez­zle­ment for broker­ing a con­tro­ver­sial gas deal with Rus­sia.

In 2009, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin said he felt “com­fort­able” work­ing with Ty­moshen­ko. But that was be­fore Ukraine came tee­ter­ing on the edge of civil war, threat­en­ing Putin’s hold over the former So­viet coun­try. Now, Ty­moshen­ko is stok­ing the blaze of a polit­ic­al re­volu­tion.

Wheth­er she’ll be the one feed­ing the fire in the long term re­mains to be seen. The crowd’s re­ac­tion to her Sat­urday ap­pear­ance in In­de­pend­ence Square was en­thu­si­ast­ic but sub­dued enough to sug­gest skep­ti­cism, es­pe­cially from the coun­try’s lib­er­als. The people won’t lunge to ac­cept her, but Ty­moshen­ko, a shrewd op­er­at­ive, likely knows that. The pres­id­ency is still far bey­ond her — or any­one’s — reach, but Ty­moshen­ko is back, and she looks ready to coax the em­bers back in­to a dy­ing flame.