In the most tumultuous of circumstances, Yulia Tymoshenko was freed last Saturday and made clear she intends to become Ukraine’s next president. If she triumphs in the presidential vote that the Ukrainian parliament set for May 25, it will be a remarkable comeback for a woman who supporters say was thrown in jail by Viktor Yanukovych to eliminate his main rival. Raised by a single mother in Dnipropetrovsk, in what is now the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, Tymoshenko’s journey to wealth and power began as one of a handful of hopeful entrepreneurs who made it big in the turbulent years of perestroika-era capitalism.
Starting out with a video rental company, she rose to become a billionaire on the back of a gas company. Her career in the 1990s gas industry is not without controversy, and opponents have regularly accused her of paying kickbacks and engaging in other corrupt practices. She first crossed swords with Yanukovych in 2004, when she allied with a fellow pro-European, Viktor Yushchenko, to form a broad-based alliance against then-president, Leonid Kuchma. When Kuchma’s anointed successor, Yanukovych, declared a fraudulent victory in elections that year, the pair led a three-month protest on Kiev’s Independence Square that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. The revolutionaries triumphed, denying Yanukovych the presidency, but the Orange alliance proved so dysfunctional in power that by the time elections came around again five years later, Yanukovych was able to stage a comeback. In early 2010, Tymoshenko, 53, was forced to concede defeat in a narrow but largely clean second-round run-off against Yanukovych. She was subsequently jailed on charges of abuse of office related to a gas deal she negotiated with Vladimir Putin, as part of the Orange government, in what many saw as an effort by Yanukovych to eliminate his most dangerous electoral rival.
While Tymoshenko retains a great deal of respect on Independence Square, it is yet to be seen whether she will be as welcome at the ballot box.
Many Ukrainians feel that she is a politician from a previous era, and that a new face — possibly Vitaly Klitschko, 42, the heavyweight boxing champion turned politician who is probably the most popular of the leaders of the disparate opposition movement — is needed to move the country forward after this revolution. Crucially, Tymoshenko has kudos not only on Independence Square but also in Moscow. She is said to have got on well with Putin during a series of tough negotiations when she was Yushchenko’s prime minister, and the Russian president has even questioned the justice of her imprisonment. That relationship may allow her to navigate a course more successfully between Russia and Europe that proved Yanukovych’s undoing.
A slender blonde known for wearing her long hair in an elaborately braided crown, Tymoshenko’s looks belie an unbending temperament that has been compared with that of Margaret Thatcher — one of her heroines. She is known at home as the Iron Lady, after Baroness Thatcher, or simply by the Ukrainian word vona, which means “she”. Even during her detention in a prison hospital — where she was moved due to serious back problems — Tymoshenko has played a role in the current protests, urging the opposition to stay strong and oust her nemesis. “The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure,” she said in a recent interview. That much at least, she has already achieved.
— The Telegraph Group, Ltd, London, 2014.