Julia Tymoshenko: The iron princess

She is the Orange revolutionary who seduced a nation and became a global style icon. Now, despite losing her billion-dollar fortune, Julia Tymoshenko is set to become Ukraine's next president – if her enemies don't kill her first

Kataryna Wolczuk,Roman Wolczuk
Sunday 18 September 2011 20:01

The transformation of Julia Tymoshenko from mere politician to leader of a revolution took place on a freezing night in November 2004 in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. With hundreds of thousands of people on the streets to protest against the falsification of election results denying victory to the presidential hopeful Viktor Yushchenko, tensions were running high. Amid rumours that troops were moving on the city to quell the uprising, and with her ally Yushchenko ensconced elsewhere, Tymoshenko led a vast crowd to face down the soldiers guarding the presidential administration.

With this one act, her transformation was complete. In less than a decade, Tymoshenko had changed her image from reviled oligarch, detested across the country, to darling of the masses. Her journey has been far from easy. In a country notorious for its dismissive attitude towards women, Tymoshenko has seen off presidents and prime ministers, endured imprisonment and a probable assassination attempt to emerge as the most popular politician in the country. If she so chooses, the 47-year-old could well be the next president of Ukraine. As leader of this geopolitically important country, the effects of her policies have the potential to reverberate across the continent.

The story of her rise to power gives an insight into the volatile, dangerous world of Ukrainian politics. The Orange Revolution, with Tymoshenko among its key figures, spelt the end of the self-serving, undemocratic regime of Leonid Kuchma, who rigged the elections in an attempt to install his anointed successor, Viktor Yanukovych. Once in power, though, the alliance of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko collapsed in acrimony, opening the way for Yanukovych to return as prime minister in September 2006. To pre-empt Yanukovych taking full control of parliament, Yushchenko dissolved the parliament, on somewhat spurious grounds, this spring. While Yanukovych won the biggest share of the ballot in the elections that followed, Tymoshenko took nearly a third of the vote – and Yushchenko supporters would unhesitatingly switch to her if she were to launch a presidential challenge to Yanukovych, putting victory within her reach.

Her inauspicious beginnings gave little hint of what was to come. She was born in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk in 1960; the family was abandoned by her father when Julia (or Yulia) was three. Little is known about her past; even her maiden name remains a mystery. While at university studying economics, she married Oleksandr Tymoshenko in 1979 and bore their only child, Eugenia, in 1980. (Her daughter, incidentally, studied at the London School of Economics and, in October 2005, married Sean Carr, a British rock singer and market trader.)

The video-rental shop the Tymoshenkos had opened in 1988 soon became a lucrative chain, and in 1991, Julia became the director of the Ukrainian Oil Company (UOC), a small business trading in oil. Sensing the opportunities that offered themselves following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ' she reorganised the UOC into an energy-trading company, United Energy Systems, which emerged as the primary importer of natural gas from Russia to Ukraine in the post-Soviet bonanza years of the mid-1990s.

Opponents claim that during this period her company imported and sold vast quantities of stolen gas while evading taxation – something she vehemently denies. Whatever the truth, it is alleged she emerged with a personal fortune (estimates have put it as high as $11bn), the nickname "Gas Princess" and an incomparable insight into the lucrative, corrupt and highly opaque gas-trading regime between Ukraine and Russia.

Appointed deputy prime minister for fuel and energy in 1999 in the reformist government led by Yushchenko, Tymoshenko reformed the sector by closing lucrative loopholes. But the gas barons, whose shady practices she had halted, got her sacked by President Kuchma in January 2001. Her politically motivated arrest the following month, on charges of bribery, smuggling, forgery and tax evasion, and the month-long imprisonment which followed, was perhaps the defining moment of her life: whether because of her taste for power, desire for revenge, or simply moral indignation, Tymoshenko the crusading politician was born.

Following the creation of Bloc of Julia Tymoshenko (BYuT), she led a street-level campaign to bring down the regime of Kuchma in 2001 after he was implicated in the murder of a Ukrainian journalist. Although she failed, Tymoshenko became a continuous thorn in his side, culminating in her pivotal role in the Orange Revolution. More than anything, her inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising stance towards Kuchma's chosen successor, Yanukovych, for his role in electoral fraud, mobilised the masses to demand justice – justice that was served when Yushchenko was elected president in a repeat round of elections. Tymoshenko's trophy was the post of prime minister. Now the question is how much further she can go.

D espite Tymoshenko's frequent successes, her opponents are struggling to get the measure of her. In a country in which women usually have only support roles, she plays her own game. Whereas the Soviet-era, male-dominated political elite issues edicts to underlings from behind closed doors, Tymoshenko is wooing her Ukrainian audience with high-profile publicity campaigns. (A factor which led to her fallout with Yushchenko was his contention that as prime minister she should spend less time in television studios.) With one of the slickest image-making machines in Europe, she is well ahead of her opponents who are only now cottoning on to the value of self-presentation.

That she is very tough, there is no doubt. Anybody who can challenge presidents and survive the forces deployed by the state deserves the title "Iron Lady", which she is particularly proud of. (She welcomes comparisons withMargaret Thatcher, very much still an icon in Ukraine; when in the UK in September, Tymoshenko insisted on being photographed with her.) Her opponents are ground down by her ferocity, tenacity and resilience. In fact, if there is one thing her main challengers, Yanukovych and Yushchenko, agree on, it is the need to keep Tymoshenko in check. She is certainly capable of keeping both of them out of power.

Tymoshenko exploits her looks unashamedly; it is no coincidence that BYuT, is pronounced "beaut". As prime minister in 2005, she appeared on the front cover of Ukraine's version of Elle, posing in a designer dress, and when asked in an earlier interview whether she would prefer to be on the cover of Time or Playboy, Tymoshenko implied a preference for the latter, though added that she would plump for the former. The official website of BYuT is plastered with images of its leader.

Tymoshenko even uses her hairstyle as a political tool. The cut, that of a Ukrainian peasant, is a bold but risky choice in a country where many people try to forget about their bumpkin origins. Yet the strategy has paid off, as the braids' traditional connotations have boosted her national political credentials. The plait has become her trademark and she is now instantly recognisable across the globe. Recently, it was replicated by Kylie Minogue in a calendar, and Sienna Miller, that doyenne of style, adopted it at this year's Golden Globe Awards. When Tymoshenko's detractors tried to undermine her credibility by accusing her of wearing hair extensions, in perhaps one of the more remarkable press conferences given by a politician and former minister, she undid her plait in front of the international press corps to prove that it was her own hair.

Her masterstroke was to counterbalance her peasant style with designer outfits, always colourful and often daring. Despite claiming that her familial income was less than $10,000 in 2005 when she was prime minister, it was estimated that she had worn at least $30,000 worth of designer outfits. The fate of her fortune acquired in the 1990s remains covered in a veil of mystery. Tymoshenko claims it was destroyed by Kuchma during her opposition to him, bolstering the riches to rags myth. '

Her charisma is legendary. Russian president Vladimir Putin is alleged to have a soft spot for Tymoshenko, while one EU official offers the following advice on negotiating with her: "Don't look at her; write copious notes; afterwards, go home and take a shower; then read your notes." She can grab, and hold, a crowd as few others can: fiery, caring, coquettish, it was she who put fire in the bellies of the protestors during the revolution. Although they supported Yushchenko, she was the one they believed in. After the two subsequently fell out in 2005, many people felt betrayed – he was, in their eyes, just the soft-talking figurehead. A year later, when Yushchenko came on to the stage on the main thoroughfare in Kiev to celebrate the anniversary of the Orange Revolution, the crowd chanted "Yu-li-a, Yu-li-a".

In a country regarded as among the more corrupt in the world, Tymoshenko's anti-corruption message resonates. Thanks to her unrelenting castigation of the political and economic elite of Ukraine for their abuse of power, voters have little difficulty in putting her murky past out of their minds when it comes to elections. Indeed, with her bile targeting rent-seeking politicians, her popularity has rocketed: in parliamentary elections in 2002 she had 8 per cent of the vote; in 2006, 22 per cent; and last month her bloc picked up nearly 31 per cent. In a presidential election, due in 2009 or 2010, on current ratings she would suck voters away from the incumbent. As it is, her main challenger, Yanukovych, would have a real battle on his hands.

Her success in the recent elections is therefore bitter-sweet for Yushchenko in their tentatively renewed alliance: without Tymoshenko, he loses control of parliament; with her on-side, power is in her hands. He is outshone, outwitted and, eventually, may end up out of power because of her.

Most worryingly for Yushchenko and Yanukovych, Tymoshenko's appeal is national; theirs is not. Yushchenko is supported almost exclusively by western Ukraine and Yanukovych by eastern and southern; each is detested in the other's heartlands. In contrast, Tymoshenko won the majority of Ukraine's electoral districts in September's parliamentary elections; she now appears to be the only politician capable of holding together a country fragmented along linguistic, ethnic and religious lines, as it seeks to find its place in the world. Ukraine is perennially torn between the pull of Russia and lure of the West, and could easily tear apart if the tensions become too great. Tymoshenko seems for the first time in the history of independent Ukraine to offer a message that appeals to its diverse parts.

It is her overwhelming appeal that presents Tymoshenko with her greatest threat: to her own safety. She unnerves the prevailing powers in Ukraine: she knows the political system inside-out, gets things done, and tends not to compromise. As prime minister, she threatened to re-nationalise many of the companies that made a number of Ukrainians billionaires. In an environment where politicians who don't toe the line have met with unfortunate road accidents, and where Yushchenko, notoriously, was poisoned while campaigning for the presidency, she is highly vulnerable. She has already been involved in a serious car accident, in 2002, not unlike those which have killed numerous other Ukrainian politicians.

Tymoshenko's unwillingness to pull punches does not leave much room for reconciliation. Her success is ringing alarm bells in Moscow – and any clashes between Kiev and Moscow cause consternation in the capitals of the European Union. Her pan-Ukrainian appeal threatens to undermine the Kremlin's "divide and conquer" strategy towards the country, while her anti-corruption crusade would infringe on vested interests in Russian energy affairs. It is likely that the threat made earlier this month by the Russian energy giant Gazprom to reduce gas supplies to Ukraine unless $1.3bn of arrears are repaid, is related to BYuT's electoral success. Once back in power, she would undoubtedly impede any moves by Russia to take control of Ukraine's gas-transit system. As more than 90 per cent of the EU's gas from Russia comes via Ukraine's pipeline, securing its ownership is key for Moscow. The EU's dependence on Ukraine's energy-transportation system makes western Europe uniquely vulnerable to any moves by Moscow to cut supplies as a means of getting its way in Ukraine.

Aware of her image as a somewhat volatile and opportunistic politician, Tymoshenko is working hard to come across as more moderate. During the recent campaign, she spoke noticeably more slowly and used more controlled body language. At the same time, she relaunched herself on the international arena, knowing that showing off her international respectability would do no harm to her political ambitions in Ukraine. She met a number of European public figures and on those occasions avoided making populist, uncompromising pronouncements.

Yet, despite her remarkable rise and recent efforts to foster a new image, Tymoshenko has yet to prove that she can take the final step from leader of a revolution to leader of a country. With a natural inclination to confront and fight, rather than negotiate and pacify, and a predisposition to follow her instincts rather than consult and reflect, Julia Tymoshenko has one more transformation to make if she is to attain the stature her country will require of her. *

Kataryna Wolczuk is deputy director of the European Research Institute at the University of Birmingham

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