Yulia Tymoshenko2004 may be well the year of Ukraine’s warrior princesses. First, singer Ruslana managed to put Ukraine on Europe’s musical map by winning the Eurovision song contest with her Wild Dances in May, and now, in early December, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the other warrior princess, Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the most mysterious political figures in Ukraine, will become Prime Minister.
The Guardian’s Nick Paton Walsh claims that, “while for the time being she is proving a great and popular rebel leader, no one really knows what she stands for,” and, on Neeka’s Backlog, Veronica Khokhlova confirms The Economist’s warning (via The Independent) that, “though she may look like Audrey Hepburn, anyone who has got this far in a country where politics often resembles a Jacobean revenge tragedy must have an edge” by wrinting about Mrs Tymoshenko that
“she’s an awesome politician – full of dignity, full of class, soft yet has some very deadly poison hidden underneath, very convincing when she speaks, prepared wonderfully to any kinds of questions, be it about the opposition’s plans, her own finances or her alleged radicalism. She’s beautiful, too, but her looks are as much of an asset as they are not.
Clearly, Mrs Tymoshenko must know that she, despite all her capabilities will likely polarize Ukrainian society rather than unite it – not just because powerful women, from Lady Macbeth to Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel, have always polarized (in fact, her authorized biography shows Mrs Tymoshenko doing housework) or because she is co-leading a popular movement bound to polarize, but also because her life could not be more different from the lives of most Ukrainians. A little more than a year ago, Taras Kuzio, wrote – in a prophetic portrait – for Foreign Policy –
Her biographer compares her to Lady Diana, dubbing her ?Ukraine’s very own Princess.? Others, paying tribute to her maverick traits, brand her an ?Iron Princess? or a ?Joan of Arc.? Already, at age 42, she has started two factories, two political parties, and one national platform rallying for reform. She offers beauty tips in the international fashion magazine Harper and Queens (her secret for blemish-free skin: soap and boiling water).
While her compatriots are struggling to get by, according to the Guardian, she represented 20% of the Ukrainian GDP when heading the UkrainianUnited Energy Systems from 1995-1997. Therefore, not unsurprisingly, there are reasonable alligations regarding illegitimate government contracts awarded by former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was convicted of money-laundering and extortion in California last June. While obviously denying any personal wrongdoing, she once quipped, according to the FP article cited above, that, in Ukraine, ?any person who has worked a single day in business can be put in jail.?
For what it’s worth, she may be one of the few who actually did serve some time – although her 43-day imprisonment on charges of corruption beginning February 2001 was the result of a power struggle with industrial oligarchs and the political establishment. In 2000, she was appointed deputy Prime Minister in charge of energy by then-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko – in the only reform cabinet Ukraine has seen so far. Her efforts, fundamentally consisting of making industrial oligarchs actually pay for the energy they consumed, made Ukraine’s state revenues skyrocket – and her unbearable. According to Kuzio, Mr Yushchenko once said, ?you need a crook to catch a crook.? In 2001, it seems, one crook was not sufficient to get the work done. And Mrs Tymoshenko – as well as her family – is still suffering personally from the events that followed, as the Independent noted yesterday –
First, the Ukrainian government cancelled her company’s contracts with Russia, then demanded that the business repay the state $5bn and return to Russia all the gas Ukraine had already burnt in its homes and generators. The company, UESU, collapsed under its weight of debt, but her enemies didn’t stop there. They hauled Oleksandr, Julia’s husband and fellow UESU executive, off to prison, and then they seized her father-in-law. And, on 13 February 2001, machine gun-wielding police from the Prosecutor General’s office burst through her front door to arrest her. … Oleksandr escaped and is now in hiding outside the country. Her father-in-law, Gennady, was recently released after several years in prison. Julia’s daughter Zhenya said: “He has been kept in horrible conditions and almost died. They took him to intensive care at the last minute. He is still learning to walk again.” Now Julia lives with her daughter, two housekeepers and, occasionally, a discreet bodyguard.
While this kind of modesty, however, was apparently not always her style – the photo galleries on her website still indicate a healthy self-esteem – and her personal wealth had made her widely unpopular – despite her looks – in the late 1990s, her fall from grace for attempts to change the system from within led most observers to believe that Tymoishenko’s conversion from oligarch to honest reformer was genuine – stemming from the realization that Ukraine’s governance structures were an impediment for the country’s future. Writing for MSNBC Michael Bociurkiw stated –
[r]ather than simply elbowing her way back to the trough, “she drew the conclusion that the crony system was at fault, and that bright energetic people like herself could do as well or better with a level playing field,” said another observor.
In 2001, she earned the street credentials that are so useful today by leading a campaign against President Kuchma for his alleged role in the murder of the journalist Georgi Gongadze. In 2002 she narrowly escaped death in a car accident some claim was a government attempt to remove her before winning 7% of the vote in the – you guess it – heavily rigged parliamentary elections with her anti-oligarch party, the ?Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc?.
In September 2003, Taras Kuzio prophecied –
In recent polls, she trails well behind other presidential candidates for the 2004 election, including her former political mentor and leading opposition figure, Yushchenko, whom she belittles in her biography as ?tragic? and a ?soft politician.? Ukraine’s reformers would best serve their cause if they stepped aside and threw their support behind Yushchenko. The odds of that seem slim, however, given the competing egos and agendas of the opposition leaders. Yushchenko could strike a deal and align himself with Tymoshenko, offering her the position of prime minister if he wins. That strategy, however, would alienate the oligarchs, who could deliver important votes. Yushchenko’s best bet might be to keep Tymoshenko at a distance, maintain his moderate stance, and hope that the pro-presidential camp will disintegrate as the elections approach.
We know a little more now. Maybe Yulia Tymoshenko is a special incarnation of the soft-power concept, or advancing stiletto feminism – but as Veronica Khokhlova explains: “almost everyone I know has a crush on Tymoshenko, to some extent.” I’m sure Angela Merkel is watching.