It is the eyes that you notice first, not the trademark braids. They are wild and hypnotising, hinting at an energy and ambition that has fuelled Yulia Tymoshenko’s tempestuous political career.
Many discounted Ms Tymoshenko after an uninspiring presidential run last June suggested Ukrainians had grown tired of her. Yet in the space of just a few months, Ms Tymoshenko’s singular vision has secured her an improbable return to the centre stage of Ukrainian politics. A new opinion poll put her Fatherland Party on course to be the largest party in this month’s local elections, with 19.5 per cent of the vote. Ms Tymoshenko was also a close second for the presidency.
“Today, my connection with the people has been re-established,” she declared in an interview with The Independent. “For two and a half years, I was isolated in a fortified prison cell, with my opponents able to throw all kinds of mud at me.” She had regained her popularity once Ukrainian society had been given the chance to judge things “soberly”, she said.
In truth, a large part of the Ukrainian population remains hostile to her. Her critics point to involvement in the old Ukrainian regime, and to her attempt to push presidential interests at EuroMaidan (a wave of demonstrations calling for the ousting of the then President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013) at a time when others were mourning those killed by riot police. It was, many considered, an attempt to gatecrash a funeral.
Was her speech then poor judgement? Ms Tymoshenko paused. “Perhaps,” she said, “after my time in prison I might have lost the sense of what the nation was thinking.” Humility has never been Ms Tymoshenko’s best card.
A source close to government suggested Ms Tymoshenko continues to harbour bitterness about the defeat in last year’s ill-fated presidential bid when she was defeated by Petro Poroshenko. “She has always considered Mr Poroshenko’s presidency an act of outrageous injustice – snapped from under her nose after years in prison,” the source said.
Success in Ukrainian politics is traditionally a factor of spending huge amounts on advertising and media airtime, as it is in many other countries. Ms Tymoshenko was at a major disadvantage on both counts during last year’s election. Mr Poroshenko’s own Channel 5 lobbied in his interests, while other oligarch-owned channels, having decided her star was fading, limited her air time.
This year, however, the same channels have given Ms Tymoshenko a clear run to turn her populist fire on the largely detested government of the Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, She talks about the subjects Ukrainians want addressed – corruption, living standards, Russian aggression and new gas tariffs – while skirting over her past record. And her ratings have improved accordingly.
Several sources in government suggested that the increased airtime was initially encouraged by President Poroshenko, who was then locked in battle with Mr Yatsenyuk. But things seemingly went too far. Now, Mr Yatsenyuk has been reduced to a lame duck, and Ms Tymoshenko is an arguably more dangerous rival for the President.
Ms Tymoshenko does not waste a moment in criticising Ukraine’s government. Their socio-economic policies, forced on the country in conjunction with the West, have caused “great suffering”, and are a “recipe for revolution”, she argued.
“They are creating more social tension, and aggression that will bring Putin closer into the heart of Kiev,” she said. “It won’t just be a revolution this time, but an uncontrolled uprising that could sweep Ukraine away as a country”. Ms Tymoshenko says she is best placed to understand the hardship ordinary Ukrainians are facing, “having been brought up by a single mother,” and “having lived in poverty” most of her life.
Ms Tymoshenko has been criticised for her finances and claimed links to oligarchic interests. Indeed, sources suggested she had recently met the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky in Europe. “I have worked 15 years battling such clan interests,” Ms Tymoshenko said. If her “more realistic” analysis of governmental policies fell now in line with the interests of some oligarchs, that was pure coincidence, she added.
Ms Tymoshenko once again finds herself in a key position – with the fate of coalition government largely in her hands. If she were to take her party out of the coalition now, she could bring down the government. Several governmental sources have suggested she has recently been using this leverage to lobby to return as prime minister – “the least of her ambitions”.
Ms Tymoshenko told The Independent her party would not leave the coalition “while the country was at war” since “to do so would be the same as opening the borders to the Russians”.
Others are less sure. “No one is as hungry for power or for victory as she is,” said a source in Kiev. “She will do anything for power.”
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