Yulia Tymoshenko: Her Past is Her Prologue, Again and Again

Director’s Note: Given the events in Ukraine, we asked Matt Lina to offer some current and present detail on some of the biggest players. We begin with Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yulia Tymoshenko is always at her strongest in opposition, with her back against the wall; in power, her charm disappears beneath a façade of brutal power and allegations of corruption. This truth of her political career is what doomed her before the 2010 presidential elections, and it appears to have come roaring back in the events of the last weeks.

For three years, Mrs. Tymoshenko has played the role of political prisoner to the hilt, sending her daughter and public relations teams to carry her every missive to the world; Ukraine’s recent protests have featured her beatifically smiling face everywhere. In many ways, it seemed the Orange Revolution again, as her heroic beauty inspired tens of thousands.

When she was released from prison in late February, she immediately raced to Independence Square in Kyiv, where her modern image was first made and where she believed the culmination of the last three years was waiting. With camera crews carefully readied, she looked up beatifically, holding a bouquet, and spoke tearfully of the events of the last several weeks and a bright new future.

Someone yelled at her to go back to Russia. Another told her she was no better than the man she’s battled for the last four years and more, Viktor Yanyukoych, the enemy of the protesters gathered there. A chorus of boos broke out. Mrs. Tymoshenko left, to a wave of flash bulbs and indifference from the crowd, setting out on a new, old future. She has since been the subject of protests by the radical protest group Femen (who claim she is simply another ally of Moscow) and promises by investigative journalists to resurrect her many sins.

It has always been thus for the woman once known as the Gas Princess. While in the opposition and cast in the role of heroic martyr and freedom fighter, she has been able to play both the victim and the potential hero, rallying millions to her cause. In power, she has been little different from the other, overwhelmingly male, leaders against whom she has contrasted herself.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, she turned a shady video store business into a natural gas monopoly, ruling a fifth of Ukraine’s economy with an iron fist and acquiring a vast fortune in the process. Never far from power, she hitched her star to Pavlo Lazarenko; when the former Prime Minister was convicted in the United States for massive corruption, Mrs. Tymoshenko was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

Entering government shortly thereafter, she rose quickly up the ranks, joining then-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko’s government as head of energy affairs – and bringing the same brutal efficiency to regulating the notoriously fractious industry as she had to conquering it. She placed herself in opposition to then-President Leonid Kuchma, and her fame truly took off at home and abroad.

When the Orange Revolution broke out on Independence Square in 2004, she seized the moment. Hiring an expensive public relations team and exchanging her traditional, shoulder-length brunette locks for her now-infamous blonde braids, she stood before the crowd, casting herself as a modern Joan of Arc. She lived off of the crowd’s energy and they responded. After new presidential elections were called and the Orange revolutionaries victorious, Yushchenko accepted her as his new Prime Minister.

That is precisely when matters began racing downhill.

Allegations of corruption and constant fighting with Yushchenko led to his cashiering Mrs. Tymoshenko shortly thereafter. Her public image faltered … until she again cast herself as the opposition, recreating a parliamentary majority and winning the Prime Minister’s spot by a single vote. She then spent the remainder of her time as Prime Minister battling and undermining Yushchenko, destroying both of their public images and bringing government to a halt. She threatened to nationalize industries, and allegedly began investigating her political opponents for criminal charges or forcing them out of business.

So bad was her performance as prime minister that just before the last presidential election, the American polling outfit Gallup found that only four percent of Ukrainians approved of their leadership, which was, in Gallup’s words, “not only the lowest rating Gallup has ever measured in former Soviet countries, but also the lowest in the world.” Her response to this, with her planned presidential run coming, was to fake a bird flu scare that sent Ukrainians racing to hoard medical supplies, and to sign a natural gas deal with Russia that would lock in Ukraine at the highest rates in Europe … and come back to haunt her later.

Faced with her ineptitude and brutal governing style, unable to commit to Russia or the West, voters rejected both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko for the presidency, choosing Yankuovych instead. Not long after, she was convicted for abuse of office (the crime has now been abolished) and was once again a symbol of resistance – a safe symbol who would never govern.

But today, as Mrs. Tymoshenko plans again to run for the presidency, she finds herself without a government against which to run (her deputies are the acting prime minister and president) and with her history well-known to Ukrainians of all stripes, including her historically close relationship with Russia. It is the worst of all possible worlds for the Gas Princess, and as yet, there is no sign that she knows how to navigate it.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons