The Orange Princess

KIEV, Ukraine -- She is not yet 50, but she has already stage-managed a revolution, served time in jail, made a fortune on the ashes of a collapsed empire, served as her country’s prime minister, and inspired a bizarre pornographic film.

Yulia Tymoshenko campaign posters

Julia Tymoshenko, arguably Ukraine’s most powerful politician, and indisputably its most glamorous public figure, has a colourful and action-packed past and a fiercely strong personality to go with it.

In the West she is best known for the pivotal role she played in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, an event that swept away a corrupt Soviet-style regime blamed for trapping Ukraine in neighbouring Russia’s sphere of influence for too long.

It was an event that put her on the global stage; last year she was inaugurated as Ukraine’s first woman prime minister, a position she held until September when her political fortunes dramatically waned.

Though she has only recently come to prominence in the West, Yulia Tymoshenko has been a household name in her native Ukraine for years, loved and loathed in equal measure but never guilty of inspiring indifference. Her detractors see her as a self-serving power-hungry radical who wants to reform the country for the sake of reform.

Her supporters see her as a passionate patriot controlled by nobody whose heart is in the right place and wants the best for Ukraine. Ms Tymoshenko herself brooks no self-doubt; she sees herself as nothing less than Ukraine’s saviour.

On her way up the treacherous ladder that is Ukrainian politics she has picked up almost as many nicknames as she has expensive designer dresses. ‘The goddess of the revolution,’ ‘Ukraine’s Joan of Arc,’ ‘the samurai in a skirt’, ‘the Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics’, ‘iron Julia,’ ‘the orange princess’ and the ‘gas princess’, are among her many monikers.

In July 2005 US magazine Forbes named her as one of the world’s three most powerful women after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Wu Yi. When she was unceremoniously sacked as Ukraine’s prime minister last September she abruptly entered a political wilderness, however, and appeared to have been publicly and permanently humiliated.

Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, (whose face was badly disfigured in a mysterious poisoning incident before the elections), complained that she had become too divisive and obsessed with self-promotion and insisted she had to go. To this day Ms Tymoshenko claims that Mr Yushchenko dismissed her only under pressure from a group of powerful oligarchs who divided up Ukraine’s juiciest industrial jewels among themselves after the Soviet Union’s demise.

One of her idées fixés as prime minister was to claw back such assets from some of Ukraine’s richest men, first for the state, and then for private investors willing to pay what she considered to be a fair price for them.

It was an approach that won her powerful enemies and saw her accused of populism, a charge she strongly denies. But rather than blaming Mr Yushchenko for her dismissal, she cleverly laid into his entourage whom she has accused of systematically misleading him and turning him against her.

Though she has criticised him, she has never done so too personally or too sharply, always blaming his perceived shortcomings on poor advice from others. Other politicians might have been tempted to bow out of politics after being so publicly driven from office.

But Ms Tymoshenko dug her elegant heels in, portrayed herself as a political martyr, and tenaciously sought to win back Mr Yushchenko’s favour. Frequently emotional when discussing the topic, she openly describes her dismissal as the most painful moment in her eventful life. Indeed, she shed a tear on national TV after being publicly upbraided by Mr Yushchenko, a moment of theatre that endeared her to the nation.

Though many Ukrainians sympathised with her, six months ago her prospects looked uniformly bleak. But if a week is a long time in politics, then half a year has turned out to be an age for Yulia Tymoshenko. A self-confessed workaholic who regularly puts in a 16-hour working day, she has staged a remarkable comeback to the point where she is now poised to win back her old job as prime minister. Her political recovery has as much to do with her unusual, contradictory and gritty character as anything else.

Though she portrays herself as a tireless champion of the working man, if Ukraine had a royal family she would be in it, if not running it. For much about the petite 45-year-old is regal, from the stylised way that she sashays into a room, to the instant attention she commands, even from her political enemies.

The ‘Orange Princess’ moniker which she gained during the Orange Revolution was well deserved. During what turned out to be one of the former Soviet Union’s most profound yet peaceful transitions of power, she made a name for herself as a passionate yet always stylish voice of change.

While the rather uncharismatic Mr Yushchenko ploddingly spoke of the need for change in a monotone voice, she whipped up hundreds of thousands of people into a revolutionary fervour that set the country on a Westwards course.

At a stroke, hundreds of years of Russian influence were rolled back and, together with Mr Yushchenko, she emerged as part of a winning team that exposed the pro-Russian presidential challenger, Viktor Yanukovych, as a fraud and demanded and got a re-run of the country’s presidential election.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had little reason to like the feisty Ukrainian nationalist, was said to be charmed when he met her after she and Mr Yushchenko had effectively blunted the Kremlin’s influence in the area.

However there is also a lighter side to Julia Tymoshenko. In Ukraine her personal and professional activities are subject to the kind of intense media interest usually reserved for royals in the UK. What she is wearing, which restaurants she is patronising, who her daughter is marrying, and which man she is dating.

All these details are hungrily consumed by Ukrainians in the same way that some Brits obsessively followed the life and times of the late Princess Diana.

She obviously enjoys the attention and has appeared on the front of Ukrainian Elle magazine and said that any ‘real woman’ would be happy to appear on the front cover of Playboy magazine. Intriguingly Ms Tymoshenko has simultaneously managed to maintain a ‘common touch’, a skill that has done wonders for her poll ratings.

Though she lives a fairytale existence well beyond the reach of most of the population, and is reported to hold any number of Swiss bank accounts, she is still viewed by ordinary Ukrainians as ‘one of us’. Her no- nonsense behaviour and populist rhetoric go a long way to explaining such a paradox.

For though she may look like a princess, she has a reputation for straight talking and telling it like it is in a way that some male Ukrainian politicians find hard to take. She is known for making colourful jokes at her opponents’ expense and is not shy of indulging in sexual or suggestive innuendos in a political culture that, like much of the former Soviet Union, is still dominated by unreconstructed machismo.

Her distinctive hair-do – blonde plaits moulded closely to her head like a princess’ crown or ears of wheat – is a traditional and authentic Ukrainian style favoured by peasant girls in the 20th century. It both reinforces her stylised down-to-earthness, chimes nicely with her uncompromising Ukrainian nationalist views, and helps her stand out from the crowd, a talent she has honed to perfection.

But though Ms Tymoshenko’s glamorous image makes waves in a part of the world where politics have traditionally been dull and conformist, she can claim to have substance as well as style

Her gutsy political recovery is a testament to that and barring a major upset, the blonde mother of one will become Ukrainian prime minister for the second time in her life in a matter of weeks. Last month’s parliamentary elections sealed her comeback.

The political bloc she was leading, immodestly named ‘Julia’s Bloc’, came second with some 23 per cent of the vote, more than that of Mr Yushchenko’s party. Her unexpectedly strong showing saw her crowned as the ‘true’ heiress of the Orange Revolution and guaranteed her a place in negotiations to form a new government. She made it clear from the start that there was only one job she would consider in the new government: that of prime minister.

Under newly introduced changes to the Ukrainian constitution, it is a post that carries more power than the president whose powers have been scaled back. In person Ms Tymoshenko comes across as someone with searing self-belief and confidence.

Meeting her is a bit like interviewing a pop star. When The Sunday Herald Magazine had an audience with her in Kiev recently at the headquarters of her ‘Fatherland’ party, she kept her would-be interrogators waiting for over an hour after cancelling a previous interview on a different day.

When she finally entered the room she walked in swiftly and confidently, made no reference to her extreme lateness, and then proceeded to win the room over like a real pro. One of her favourite colours is white, largely because, along with her trademark blonde plaits, it helps her stand out from the crowd and gives her an almost saintly aura.

This occasion was to be no different – a white fur coat hung off her narrow shoulders, and she wore a skinny white polo neck with the logo of her party on her chest – a blazing scarlet heart which symbolises her love of the Ukrainian people.

Though much has been made of her supposed hostility to Russia and her language of choice is always Ukrainian, she spoke fluent Russian on this occasion. Over the course of the next hour she laughed and joked, looked weepy-eyed, held the gaze of any journalist who asked her a question for as long as it took her to answer, and promoted herself as if she had just taken a Max Clifford master class in the subject. She was also characteristically blunt speaking.

“Yes, I really do have a negative attitude towards people in Mr Yushchenko’s entourage,” she admitted. “These people have been giving the wrong advice to the president for the past year and a half.”

She speaks without pausing, her hands clasped together, and at times her manner resembles that of a vexed school teacher. She is also not shy of playing on her femininity and indeed on her sexuality.

“It’s very interesting,” she says with a hint of a smile “that men prefer to put women (rather than themselves) forward when it comes to the front row of politics.”

The image of herself as a strong decisive female figure is clearly one she likes; she relishes recounting how her male rivals – the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych and the man who succeeded her as prime minister, Yuri Yekhanurov – refused to face her in live TV debates. “I invited them, but they didn’t have enough courage to face me unfortunately. Elections without live TV debates are like phone sex. They don’t end satisfactorily.”

The idea that her opponents are afraid to face her on equal terms runs through the interview. When asked who she would rather meet in a dark alley she quips that none of her political opponents would dare to meet her in such a situation with or without bodyguards.

Her immodesty is as apparent as her knack for relentless self-promotion. “If I had the energy to talk about all my achievements (as prime minister before she was sacked) I’d be here all night, but I value your time,” she remarks without a hint of irony. She is unapologetic about this side of her character. “Every politician worries about their image, it’s normal. Public relations is extraordinarily important for political figures.”

Cheekily, she then uses the question to reel off a long list of her alleged achievements when she was prime minister last year. So successful were her reforms, she claims, that some probably qualify for the Guinness Book of Records. Coming from another politician such hyperbolic self-aggrandisement would be hard to take, but somehow she manages to get away with it and still seem likeable.

Her answers have her audience laughing out loud and shaking their heads in disbelief at her sheer boldness, but always rapt. She talks a good talk. Though the Orange Revolution has undoubtedly disappointed in some respects she robustly defends it.

The media is freer, she points out, last month’s elections were the country’s most democratic to date, and political life is genuinely vibrant. Not, she admits, that there isn’t a lot to do such as achieving final victory over the oligarchs, sacking corrupt government officials and taking back more state companies that she considers were ‘stolen’ from the people in the wild Nineties.

When asked whether she feels bitterness towards Mr Yushchenko for sacking her and what the state of their relations are (there are reports that they have not been on speaking terms since she was fired) she comes up with another quirky sound bite quoting none other than Queen Victoria.

“I just close my eyes, lay back and think of Ukraine,” she says. “I don’t have any bitterness.”

Her life story would make a good film. Though technically still married to her husband Oleksander Tymoshenko, it is an open secret that the two live apart and she has been linked to a string of well-known and powerful men. Educated as an economist, she made her first serious money in 1988 taking out a loan with her husband to start a video rentals business before moving into the energy sector.

In 1995 she became the president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, one of the former USSR’s biggest companies, but was forced to leave after she and other senior company figures were accused of fraud.

It was during this period that she is reported to have made serious amounts of money – analysts estimates’ of her personal wealth vary wildly, but the real figure is said to run into billions of dollars. In 1996 she moved into politics becoming an MP, going on to lead the nationalist ‘Fatherland Party,’ and eventually serving as deputy prime minister.

She has had two brushes with the law, but has successfully cleared her name in both cases arguing that she was persecuted for her political activism. In the first instance the Ukrainian authorities accused her of illegally siphoning off billions of dollars of Russian gas, a charge that saw her spend 42 days in jail.

In the second, Russia accused her of bribing officials in its defence ministry. In Ukraine a novel loosely based on her life called To Kill Julia recently appeared and sold strongly.

She also has the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s few female politicians to have inspired a pornographic film. The trashy movie, made by a Russian nationalist MP, has her conducting an intimate relationship with the president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Her daughter Yevgenia, who studied at the London School of Economics, recently married an Englishman who sings in an amateur rock band called The Death Valley Screamers, a move that generated yet more publicity for Tymoshenko senior.

If and when she is confirmed as prime minister it will be a return to the political and indeed global stage that she will savour. She is certain to keep generating headlines for years ahead and is unlikely to lose her skill for winning even her most recalcitrant critics over.

“Do you really think I can charm people?,” she once said in an interview. “That’s interesting, I never would have thought so.”

Source: Sunday Herald

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