Few figures in Ukraine are more divisive than Yulia Tymoshenko. Some see her as a martyr while others consider her to be part of the corrupt system. Now she wants to become president, but can she succeed?
A meeting with Yulia Tymoshenko is like an appointment at the Vatican, an audience with the pope. It feels like there’s incense in the air, an almost religious, idiosyncratic blend of politics and faith.
This meeting with select journalists in the Kiev headquarters of her “Fatherland” party is carefully orchestrated, down to the last detail. Despite undergoing medical treatment for chronic back pain at Berlin’s Charité Hospital, Tymoshenko is wearing stiletto heels this evening — apparently to avoid looking short. She has dispensed with the miniskirt she likes to wear, as well as her expensive jewelry. Now that the very existence of her people is at stake, or at least the survival of Ukraine within its current borders, she has opted for a simpler, more conservative look.
Today she is wearing a gray outfit with a high collar and tasteful makeup. It emphasizes her Madonna-like face, which doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result of her recent imprisonment or any other setbacks. Every word and every gesture reveals that this sophisticated and occasionally arrogant mother of the nation has become its deeply determined would-be savior.
She is constantly aware of the TV cameras, making sure they capture her face from the most advantageous perspective, and underscoring her most important messages by pointing at the ceiling with her index finger, as if she expects support from a higher authority. A steelier tone slips into her otherwise soft voice, as she says: “We call upon the West to supply us with modern weapons. We must put the Russian aggressor in his place!”
And how, exactly, is that going to work?
“We cannot give up Crimea for lost, nor should we surrender a single square meter of our country. We must steadfastly refuse to play the role of the victim in the history books of the future!” She adds that she is prepared to make every personal sacrifice needed to serve the greater good, and that the time to reach a decision is approaching, before strutting off the stage on her high heels.
Martyr or ‘Gas Princess’?
Fifty-three-year-old Tymoshenko is an extremely divisive figure, more deeply loved and hated than almost any other politician in Ukraine. Some see her as the “Ukrainian Joan of Arc,” a martyr who suffered for her nation in prison. Others, however, call her the “gas princess,” an unscrupulous oligarch who has amassed a fortune worth billions and, as prime minister, did serious damage to Ukraine.
In 2005, Forbes named her the “world’s third-most powerful woman.” In 2011, she was sent to prison for alleged abuse of office. And in late 2013, a planned EU association agreement with Ukraine failed in part because Brussels had made Tymoshenko’s immediate release one of its conditions.
The relationship between Tymoshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin was initially characterized by their mutual political respect. In 2005, she described him as a “wonderful, dignified leader,” a man Russia could be proud of. “He promotes his agenda, and everyone else is expected to conform to it. I hope the world respects my country just as much one day.”
Now that the opposition has prevailed on Kiev’s Maidan Square and pro-Russian separatists are occupying cities in eastern Ukraine, her tone has changed considerably. In a conversation about Putin in March, presumably recorded by Russian intelligence, she said: “I’m willing to take a Kalashnikov and shoot the bastard in the head!”
That outrageous statement could mean that she has made a dramatic about-face following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but it is more likely a tactical maneuver. After all, one of the few things everyone in Ukraine can agree upon is that Yulia Tymoshenko is capable of anything.
According to the latest polls on the upcoming May 25 presidential election, Tymoshenko is in second place, trailing significantly behind “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko, 48, whose television station supported the Maidan uprising. Nevertheless, she will undoubtedly play an important role in Ukrainian politics after the election. Despite her dislike of Poroshenko, she would probably work with him if made the right offer, and despite the chaotic situation in the country, she continues to campaign tirelessly, as she did in Odessa a week ago, when she accused the Kremlin of pushing Ukraine into a bloody “Yugoslavia scenario.”
Her hometown is as filled with contradictions as the country itself. It is located in southeastern Ukraine, at a crossroads between different worlds, slightly closer to the Russian border than to Kiev. The route from the Dnipropetrovsk airport into the city traverses Third-World-like roads, and passes a Porsche and a Lexus dealership. Downtown Dnipropetrovsk, with its Karl Marx Boulevard, a McDonald’s restaurant as well as magnificent, classical Russian buildings and a department store called “Europe,” feels like a motley collection of influences from around the world, buildings whose architects couldn’t decide on a direction.
Dnipropetrovsk represents many things for Tymoshenko: the place where she was born, and where she worked her way up the ladder with irrepressible determination; the community in which she was married, made her first million and developed her political ambitions. She bought her mother a house in Dnipropetrovsk, and she is still fond of making appearances there.
The city is not only a focal point in Tymoshenko’s life, it also a momentous significance for the country. The threads of Ukrainian history have and continue to come together along this bend in the Dnieper River.
Dnipropetrovsk has long been an important trading center. In 1775, Catherine the Great ruthlessly destroyed the autonomous Cossack nation and dubbed the region “New Russia.” She wanted to give her realm a new, southern capital. According to the plans of her confidant, Count Grigory Potemkin, a cathedral larger than St. Peter’s Basilica was to be built in the center of the city. But the grandiose plans came to nothing, and Catherine soon had other worries.
Dnipropetrovsk suffered greatly under Stalin and Hitler’s troops, as the dictators terrorized the population with famines and mass executions. After World War II, the city became an important center for the arms industry and was declared off-limits to foreigners. It was also a breeding ground for political leaders. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, was from Dnipropetrovsk, as was Leonid Kuchma, appointed prime minister of independent Ukraine in 1992 and elected president two years later. In fact, an entire generation of political leaders who have shaped the country are popularly known as the “Dnipropetrovsk Mafia.”
A Wild Girl
Tymoshenko grew up at 50 Kirov Street, a four-story, prefabricated apartment building with low ceilings and neglected stairwells. “It still looks the same here as it did in her childhood,” says neighbor Lyudmila Gregoryanska, as she opens the door to her tiny, three-room apartment. Yulia was a wild girl, says the old woman, “always hanging out in the courtyard, playing soccer and scuffling with the boys.” The girl hardly knew her father, who left the family when she was three. Her mother made ends meet with a job in a taxi office.
Tymoshenko attracted attention early in her life, as a winner of debate competitions, gymnastics front-woman in high school and a principal dancer in a theater group. She was a fan of Bach and the Beatles alike, and popular with her fellow students. Tymoshenko was determined to escape poverty and her claustrophobic life in the drab, gray suburbs. She met the son of a local party official at 17, and their marriage soon afterwards became her ticket to social advancement – and a small apartment of their own. The birth of her daughter Yevhenia one year later didn’t stop Tymoshenko from pursuing her ambitions.
She studied economics and graduated with honors. In 1984, she began working as an engineer in a machine factory that manufactured radar devices for the military. A few months later, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in Moscow, and experiments with the market economy were now allowed. Tymoshenko quickly understood what imagination and connections could do for her. In the past, anything that was not expressly allowed was forbidden — and now the Soviet bloc was trying the opposite approach.
She borrowed money from friends and, with the help of her father-in-law, who was in charge of film distribution within the party, she obtained previously banned foreign films. She opened a video rental business, and although revenues were modest — erotic films were the most popular — the money began to add up.
Part 2: A Gold Rush and a Future Career in Politics
In 1989, Tymoshenko and her husband established a new company dealing in more valuable materials: oil, and pipelines for oil and natural gas. Tymoshenko, faster and more ruthless than others, had recognized that the most important — and lucrative — aspect of her region’s future was energy security.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence in 1991 created the conditions for a gold rush. Suddenly a national border dissected regions that had been closely intertwined economically, leading officials in cities like Kiev, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk to realize that they were almost entirely dependent on Russia. Shrewd and avaricious energy “brokers” positioned themselves on both sides of the border.
During this period, Tymoshenko snatched up whatever she could. Obsessed with money and power, her ambitions were insatiable. Years later, she never spoke about the dark sides of her career. “In my childhood,” she said, “I learned what it meant to have to turn over every kopeck twice. I came into business by chance more than anything else. But it was predetermined from the start that I would become a politician.”
The Only Woman in Ukraine’s Billionaires’ Club
In the early 1990s, however, Tymoshenko showed no sign of having any political ambitions. Her business interests overshadowed everything else, even her private life. Her daughter was sent to a British boarding school at 13 and her husband was reduced to the role of business partner. In 1995, Tymoshenko became president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, which placed her at the negotiating table in Moscow with Rem Viakhirev, the then chairman of the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom. He later said that he had been surprised to see a young woman walk into his office wearing a miniskirt and high-heeled boots, but soon realized that she was an extremely tough negotiator.
Like Ukraine, Western Europe was also dependent on Moscow for natural gas, and the most important section of the gas pipeline connecting the two passed through Kiev. Of course, the Kremlin had recognized the pipeline’s potential for extortion and reward. This meant Tymoshenko had to toe the line if she wanted to obtain favorable terms and discounts. As time went by, she managed to buy up more and more companies, including a metal plant and two banks. By the beginning of 1997, the woman who had grown up in low-income housing controlled a corporate empire with revenues comprising an estimated one-eighth of the country’s gross domestic product.
She was the only woman in the Ukrainian billionaires’ club, a super oligarch among oligarchs. Nevertheless, Tymoshenko knew that she was not untouchable. In 1995, the authorities caught her with a large amount of money at the Zaporizhia airport in southeastern Ukraine, presumably in response to a tip from a competitor, and she had to spend several nights in a prison cell. When her mentor, then Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, resigned in 1997 and the government forced her conglomerate out of the lucrative natural gas market, her businesses deteriorated. She managed to transfer a large share of her private fortune to the West in 1998, but the whereabouts of her assets are unknown to this day.
Her enemies claim she went into politics to safeguard her wealth, while her friends say she did it to serve her country in the wake of her success. Image consultants transformed her into a mother figure for the nation, advising her to steer clear of designer clothing while running for a seat in parliament. She was elected to the Verkhovna Rada, or Supreme Council, in 1996 as an independent with a record showing in the vote. In parliament, she joined a faction that supported then President Kuchma — a purely a strategic move; she hated everything the coarse politician represented, but also knew that she could bide her time.
She Loved Power But Wanted to Be Loved
She developed an image as a patron of the arts, fostering musicians and donating money to churches and social causes. She loved power, but also wanted to be loved. She had always spoken Russian at home, but now tenaciously taught herself Ukrainian.
The former oligarch became a champion of market-based reforms, and formed her own party, Fatherland, in 1999. At the turn of the millennium, she became deputy prime minister for the fuel and energy sector, locking horns with the clans that still controlled the economy. But in 2001, the courts went after Tymoshenko for gas smuggling and tax evasion, and she was dismissed and placed under arrest for 42 days.
Her big moment finally arrived in 2004, when she joined former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko to lead the protests against the old regime on Maidan Square. The protesters accused the regime’s presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, of gaining office through bogus elections and with Moscow’s help. Buoyed by the protesters’ chants of “Yulia, Yulia,” Tymoshenko and her Orange Revolution prevailed.
They could have made a magnificent team: Yushchenko, the soft-spoken, thoughtful politician, and Tymoshenko, the robust, decisive icon. He became president — even after having been disfigured by an apparent poisoning — and she was appointed prime minister. But soon they were working at cross-purposes: He was a free market liberal while she was more of a social democrat, and before long they hated each other even more than they despised their political rivals.
Trial and a Severe Jail Sentence
In 2010, Tymoshenko narrowly lost the presidential election against Viktor Yanukovich, and was put on trial in 2011 for abuse of office. She was accused of having signed a gas agreement with Putin two years earlier, when she was prime minister, that was disadvantageous to Ukraine without obtaining the approval of her cabinet. At the time, Russia had shut off the flow of gas to Ukraine.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison in what was clearly a politically motivated outcome. She tried to keep her party together from her prison cell in Kharkiv, her chronic back pain worsening, and occasionally went on hunger strike. When the new revolution on Maidan Square finally prevailed, Tymoshenko was released and Yanukovich fled the country.
As she was pushing her mother’s wheelchair out of the prison, Tymoshenko’s daughter presented her with 99 white roses on behalf of her fellow party members. She was flown to the capital in a private plane and was then chauffeured to Maidan Square in a limousine. Tymoshenko apparently expected ovations, but she was mistaken. Arriving in an ostentatious car was a mistake, and the applause was interspersed with boos.
She readjusted immediately, showing that her instincts hadn’t abandoned her. “I understand that you no longer trust politicians,” she said. “I apologize, and I ask for your forgiveness. I want to get back to work!” The catcalls trailed off.
It became apparent in the ensuing days and weeks just how adaptive and unscrupulous Tymoshenko was. Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk — both from her party — were vehemently opposed to a proposal by former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko to temporarily install influential oligarchs as governors in the eastern Ukrainian cities. “Yulia listened for 15 minutes, understood what I was saying and accepted it,” says Lutsenko. She convinced her fellow party members and reached an agreement.
Today Dnipropetrovsk-born billionaire banker Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a Tymoshenko ally, is governor of Dnipropetrovsk Province. He retains tight control over the city — unlike the Donbass region, only 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, the city hasn’t seen any unrest by pro-Russian separatists. Kolomoyskyi recently paid $5 million (€3.7 million) out of his own pocket to keep the Ukrainian air force in operation, after it had run out of fuel, and has placed a bounty of $10,000 on every “Russian spy” captured. A dozen Moscow agents have allegedly already been taken into custody during the dubious campaign. Presumably in retaliation, separatists stormed Kolomoyskyi’s banks in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Rumor has it that if or when there is an election, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and the governor of Donetsk, will open his coffers for Tymoshenko. She is one of the few political leaders from the capital who has traveled to embattled eastern Ukraine. She was received with respect in Donetsk, but there were also signs depicting her as a Nazi bride, along with the words: “Send Yulia back to prison and everything will be fine!”
In Kiev, her former ally Yushchenko has long invoked the dangers of Tymoshenko coming back into power. He believes that the 2011 trial was “in order,” saying that she seriously damaged her country with the gas deal. “Holding onto power became an end in itself for her,” says Yushchenko. “Delegates from my party were bought so that she could secure her position.” Yushchenko’s descent from power is unparalleled. In the last presidential election, he garnered less than 6 percent of the vote. Today Yushchenko, bitter and withdrawn, devotes his efforts to a foundation.
But now Tymoshenko also has to fight, even for the full support of her party. Her protégés Turchynov and Yatsenyuk have taken a liking to power and are distancing themselves from her. But the members of her campaign team are convinced that Tymoshenko, nicknamed the “Sorceress,” will manage to find a solution, as she always does, even in hopeless situations. “Many people think that she will somehow succeed,” says one of her advisers.
Historian Sergei Sobolev, the parliamentary leader of the Fatherland party, says: “No one else but Tymoshenko is tough and decisive enough to lead our nation out of this existential crisis.” She is now in the public eye almost every day, making statements, issuing proposals and leveling accusations. Her tone is becoming increasingly shrill. She has advised her people to form civil defense militias. And on her website, she attacks the Russian president, writing: “I am addressing you directly. Our struggle is not directed against the Russian people, but against your imperial ambitions. The war you have forced upon Ukraine will signify the end of your regime.”
Does she truly believe that after using such abusive language, she will be able to sit at the same table again with the man who so resembles her in his ruthlessness and egocentrism?
Architect and Victim
Moscow pays close attention to who is moving to the fore in Kiev, and with what means — and reacts to this information with everything in its arsenal. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists who, if not directed are at least actively supported by the Kremlin, are trying to thwart the planned election on May 25. They are determined to prevent a new, democratically elected government that would speak strongly on behalf of the entire country. As part of their propaganda war against pro-Western candidates, Russian authorities have already banned imports of chocolate from Poroshenko’s company. Kremlin supporters are also putting together an anti-Tymoshenko film, tentatively titled “The Truth About Yulia,” which allegedly contains compromising material.
The film likely revolves around the Lazarenko case. Tymoshenko met the shady politician in her native Dnipropetrovsk, where he was involved in some major deals with rising oligarchs and siphoned off enormous sums of money for himself. Lazarenko became prime minister in Kiev in 1996, but he soon fled to Switzerland, where he had millions tucked away in bank accounts. After being arrested for money laundering in the United States, he was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2006.
The indictment reads: “Lazarenko and his partners managed to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars through fraud, extortion, bribery and embezzlement… for the distribution of gas imports. The partners included Yulia Tymoshenko.” The indictment also mentions other companies she controlled, including a business established in Cyprus in 1992, with which she “made payments of at least $162 million to Lazarenko” in 1996 and 1997.
She is and remains a symbol of Ukraine, both an architect and a victim of its rotten policies, a heroine and an object of hate alike, and a comeback artist who refuses to admit that she is a bigger part of the country’s problems than she is of its solutions. In the middle of last week, her office announced that there was clear evidence of a murder plot against her.
There are few women in politics known by an entire nation only by their first name: Evita in Argentina, Maggie in Great Britain and now Yulia. She shares Evita Péron’s glamor and dramatic rise from the very bottom, and Margaret Thatcher’s iron determination, cold-bloodedness and conviction that she is destined to play a great role in history. Ukrainians either worship or condemn Yulia Tymoshenko. No one is indifferent.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan