While Ukraine went through its dramatic revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko was stuck in jail. Now she wants to be president. But many protesters say the former opposition leader doesn’t represent the change they fought for.
A black Mercedes S-Class sedan stops. The back window rolls down. Sitting in the car is Yulia Tymoshenko. The former prime minister and long-time opposition leader is free, for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
“You won’t forget who brought about this revolution, will you?” a man asks, in a slightly threatening voice. “I won’t forget – that’s the most important thing for me,” Tymoshenko answers quickly, and waves. She looks surprised.
The men who stopped Tymoshenko’s convoy belong to the opposition Maidan Self Defense movement. Apparently, they weren’t pleased with the “imperious” way in which she and the parliamentary head of her Fatherland party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, passed by.
This scene, which took place in Kyiv on Saturday, is symbolic of the current attitude towards Tymoshenko, once the most important opposition figure in Ukraine. In her first appearance on Independence Square after her release, the 53-year-old voiced her desire to run for the presidency. The reaction of the tens of thousands in attendance was less than exuberant.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a renowned journalist at the online Ukrainska Pravda, puts it in plain words: “Yulia, that’s enough.” The trial against her may have been politically motivated, he writes in his blog, but Tymoshenko is not in line to govern Ukraine. He calls for the new head of the country to be someone unencumbered by corruption allegations.
Right hand man voted in
He was referring mainly to Tymoshenko’s polarizing role as Ukraine’s “gas princess,” during the period in the 1990s when she headed United Energy Systems of Ukraine, which held the natural gas monopoly.
“Maidan gave birth to thousands of leaders who could govern just as well as Tymoshenko,” concludes Leshchenko: It’s their victory, not hers.
That sentiment could be heard frequently at Independence Square, and in other online commentaries. “Dear Yulia! We didn’t demonstrate for you – or for your deputy Oleksandr Turchynov,” wrote one activist on the social networking website Facebook. “And it wasn’t for you that people gave their lives between the barricades.”
The Ukrainian parliament on Sunday voted by an overwhelming margin to hand over the duties of president to the parliamentary speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, until new elections are held on May 25. This makes Turchynov, who is seen as Tymoshenko’s right hand man, the most powerful man in Ukraine.
Figurehead no more
Tymoshenko’s return to politics brings with it a potential for conflict, say observers in Kyiv. Posters bearing images of Tymoshenko and her trademark hairstyle were present from the start at Maidan, but her release was never a central demand of those demonstrating. Neither her disputed trial nor her conviction in 2011 ever really mobilized the people, with only a few hundred people ever present to call for her release. It seems the West was far more interested in her fate than her own people.
What’s more, many Ukrainians hold Tymoshenko partly responsible for the failure of the Orange Revolution in 2004. And it will not be forgotten that she was willing to work together with deposed president Viktor Yanukovych in 2009 to rewrite the constitution. That cooperation never happened because, in the end, Yanukovych decided not to work with Tymoshenko.
In the ring with Klitschko
Conflict is also on the horizon with fellow opposition figure and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. Relations between the two have been tense for years. When Klitschko ran for mayor of Kyiv in 2008, Tymoshenko refused to grant her support and instead had Turchynov join the race. Both lost.
Both Tymoshenko and Klitschko have presidential ambitions, and both have made those public. Currently, no opinions polls exist, but earlier surveys suggested Ukrainians would be more willing to trust Klitschko with power. While Tymoshenko sat behind bars, the boxing champion was on the front lines in an attempt to prevent bloodshed. He should have the upper hand at this point.
On Sunday, Tymoshenko tried to tone down her desire to become president. She was quoted by several media saying that it was “not the time” to talk about the presidency. But it would also be too early to write her off. She is the most experienced and rhetorically gifted opposition politician. Despite a cool and reserved initial reception, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if, come May, she made good on her wish to fill Ukraine’s highest seat.