Ukraine’s Survivor: Yulia Tymoshenko
Yulia Tymoshenko no longer braids her blond hair, but looks like a corporate lawyer from Berlin or Brussels, complete with glasses, an hour-glass figure, poise and exquisite grooming.
She is the most famous and most controversial figure in Ukraine. And, however historians or critics judge her, she embodies the hardship endured by Ukraine’s people in their post-Soviet struggle to join Europe.
The world remembers the beauty in braids beside her pockmarked running mate, Viktor Yushchenko, during the dramatic Orange Revolution in 2004. He had been poisoned, but she kept the campaign alive and eventually overturned rigged elections.
In the years since, she has been jailed on bogus charges, the country has failed to stop corruption and Ukraine’s eastern regions have been conquered by Moscow-backed “separatists” with the direct support of the Russian military. So far, 10,000 have died and 1.7 million residents remain displaced.
She agreed to a wide-ranging interview a week ago in the boardroom of her political party compound in Kyiv. Surrounding her desk is a photo of her daughter, a Cossack sculpture and two bookcases with icons and personally inscribed books from Margaret Thatcher and Madeleine Albright. When asked about her first grandchild, a girl of three months, she beams and immediately asks an aide to whisk out iPad photos. The photographer zeros in and she says, “Please no photos of her, you understand.”
Tymoshenko is tender, but tough. Her legions of detractors label her variously as ruthless, opportunistic, manipulative, a Russian spy, a closet oligarch and a dangerous populist. But after decades of slurs, abuse, financial attacks, jailings and beatings, she tops the polls, along with newly released Ukrainian pilot and heroine Nadiya Savchenko, who has joined Tymoshenko’s party. In a snap election, their party would win most seats. But the country is three years away from the next election.
Tymoshenko has been smeared and abused for years while Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot, was sentenced to 22 years for killing two Russian journalists, which she denied. She was pardoned in May by President Vladimir Putin, then freed in a prisoner swap.
“For 17 years, the men in politics have used media, financial resources, courts and prosecutors to eliminate me as an existential threat,” said Tymoshenko. “But I remain.”
She’s right: like her or loathe her, she’s the most resilient and fearless leader in Ukraine.
She is given to sound bites, but the facts are the facts: in the two years since the Revolution of Dignity no one has gone to jail for wounding and murdering hundreds of peaceful protesters, and none of the billions looted from the country by former president Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies has been recouped. Worse, President Petro Poroshenko has dragged his feet on promised reforms.
But there have been some gains: International Monetary Fund-imposed economic and energy reforms have been implemented, reducing deficits and inflation; and Parliament has passed laws to clean up the judiciary and bureaucracy, but these have yet to be implemented. The war grinds on, and Ukraine has doubled its army and replaced equipment sold off by the previous regime, likely in anticipation of an invasion.
Tymoshenko’s life mirrors the country’s turmoil. Her father deserted her mother in 1961, when she was one, but she obtained two degrees, married and in 1988 she and her husband borrowed $71 (5,000 rubles) to open a video rental service. By 1995, the Tymoshenkos and two partners had become the main importers of Russian natural gas to Ukraine and, by so doing, caught the eye of the post-community party nomenklatura and its “clans,” who began to muscle in.
Rather than sell out, she fought back.
“I was the first politician to submit a bill to impeach (former president Leonid) Kuchma. Then Kuchma ruined my business and in 2000 tried to make me part of the former Kuchma’s prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko criminal case,” she said.
(Lazarenko fled Ukraine in 1998 and is in a U.S. prison serving a sentence for money laundering and fraud, involving the embezzlement from Ukraine of $200 million.)
During Kuchma’s tenure (1994 -2005), the country fell into the hands of clans and Russian influence who controlled the state. To combat this, Tymonshenko joined forces with Yushchenko. He was a respected banker, and she brought organizational skills, glamour, moxie and passion, to what became the Orange Revolution in 2004 that overthrew rigged elections.
Yushchenko was president in 2005-10, but stabbed her in the back by siding with the oligarchs. Yanukovych followed (2010-14) and promptly jailed her in 2011 on trumped-up charges. His pro-Russian predation, refusal to join the European Union and international protests against her imprisonment led to the Revolution of Dignity.
On Feb. 21, 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia in the night and the next day Tymoshenko was released. She was brought in a wheelchair to address throngs of supporters. Her speech and survival represent Ukraine’s most stunning political counterpoint in its struggle against tyranny.
Now, healthy, fit and leading a party, she continues.
“I do not want revenge,” she said. “Two guards beat me in prison and were convicted of three and seven years but the next day I asked President Poroshenko to pardon them and they are now free.”
Threats and bribes won’t work and never have, she says.
For instance, in 2011 Yanukovych, sent her a note suggesting she leave the country within three days or face arrest, then conviction. “We will blacken your reputation and Ukrainians will never elect a woman. Go away,” she recalled.
In defiance, she read the note on live television and pledged to remain. Three days later, she was arrested and sentenced to seven years on bogus charges.
“I did not leave, and now it is he who fled and is hiding,” she added. “I came back and returned to my favourite job. He has gone away.”
Tymoshenko believes the country is in the midst of a Catch-22: reformers represent only 20 per cent of Parliament, Poroshenko is obstructing reforms, 54 per cent of Ukrainians want him impeached, but an election is three years away.
So what is Poroshenko’s strategy?
“He knows the people are tired, discouraged, apathetic — these are his secret allies. He knows we are also at war and people don’t want instability. The Russians would use another Maidan protest as a pretext to invade. So the war is a cover. The Ukrainian society wants this government to go but at the moment it doesn’t know how.”
The Minsk peace process (concerning the occupation of a portion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea by alleged Russian “separatists”) is deeply flawed.
“The key question is how could the strategy of the president of Ukraine be anything other than to have around the table the signators of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994?” she asks.
The memorandum was signed by the U.S., Britain, Ukraine and Russia to guarantee the integrity of Ukraine’s borders after Ukraine agreed to give up its gigantic nuclear arsenal, inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union. But the U.S. and Britain did not come to Ukraine’s aid in 2014 after Russian operatives invaded it, and a new group is now at the table: Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine.
For many reasons, Tymoshenko believes the war will drag on.
“I have met Putin,” she said. “He’s bored with Russia and his idea is to lead the world. Russia is too small and this mindset is a feature of his character and his excessive ambitions. But this is a 21st-century problem the world must deal with and the West can’t respond. The world order must be strengthened or it will be ruined by anyone.”
As for Ukraine, she remains more optimistic than ever.
“During the course of two revolutions and the war, the real Ukraine identity has been born … we are a family, we can stand up for ourselves and we are getting stronger,” she said.
National Post published Oct. 8, 2016