The Fairest Premier of Them All?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Yulia Tymoshenko helped Ukraine’s president topple a sinister regime. Now the two are heading for a political rift. So what does the future hold for the heroine of the orange revolution?

"Starwars" Princess Leia (L) and Ukraine's PM Yulia Tymoshenko

We can expect happy endings in fairy tales. But in politics? Well, perhaps, sometimes, in snowy landscapes far, far away. Last winter, two equally heroic figures dominated Ukraine’s orange revolution, the peaceful uprising in which pro-democracy protesters overturned their country’s corrupt regime. The first, Yulia Tymoshenko, brought a mesmerising passion to events. A firebrand political orator, she addressed almost daily the demonstrators thronging the Kiev streets in support of the second, the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. The government had tried to prevent him from winning the presidential election by organising massive fraud; it had also allegedly poisoned him, leaving his face disfigured.

The demonstrators, sometimes a million strong, draped in orange flags and clothing, fell a little in love with the beautiful Tymoshenko and the once-handsome Yushchenko, who promised to rid Ukraine, a country larger than France and with a population of 50m, of an authoritarian regime that mingled the stagnation of its Soviet past with banana-republic ruthlessness. Persevering in the cold, they forced an election that Yushchenko won.

Tymoshenko’s reward was her appointment as prime minister. To many Ukrainians, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko partnership promised their country an inspiring new story. But fairy tales can disguise a more complex narrative. Today the pair still display a public show of harmony, declaring they will stand united in next spring’s parliamentary elections to reinforce Ukraine’s journey towards democracy. Yet tensions between them are evident, exacerbated by her rising popularity even as his support slowly ebbs. Both their parties – Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko’s eponymously named grouping – have similar agendas: strengthening democracy and human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and joining the EU and Nato. But this political harmony is marred by personal rivalries: the premier’s position is coveted by some of Yushchenko’s political coterie, and even members of his camp are dismayed by his occasional envy of Tymoshenko’s poll ratings. This is a story in which the heroine, though she would never admit it, seems more interested in sitting on the throne than being the power behind it. But does that cast her in a good or bad light? Is she offering Ukraine a magic wand or a poisoned apple?

We begin to answer that question in her office on the seventh floor of the cabinet building in Kiev, as her team awaits her 9am arrival. An eastern European version of a West Wing team, there are 10 of them, all men, from different backgrounds – academia, business, politics, journalism and the intelligence services. Their mission is to remodel Ukraine for the better, and with over 18,000 state officials from the old regime sacked in the first weeks of the new administration, between February and April, there is much to assess. They agree privately, with comments by her opponents, that unless rifts are healed, Tymoshenko’s party may break the orange coalition and contest the parliamentary elections to secure a pivotal role for itself, one that would provide the springboard for her own bid in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2009.

It is a surprise to hear her greet staff and guests in a quiet, almost self-effacingly polite voice. With a few exceptions, as we observe her over the following days, she uses the same gracious tones with everyone. It’s a different but equally effective tone to the strident one used in public oratory, suggesting she has the strength not to strive to continually impress. She laughs easily and often blushes if given praise. Does the fairy-tale heroine have grace? Apparently so.

The friendliness is genuine but it is obvious she works hard on her image. She employs a photographer who has chronicled her looks and life for the past seven years, and likes to keep fit, usually starting her day with a run. She said: “I used to run 10 kilometres a day but I’ve had to do less since I became prime minister.” Breakfast is a cocktail of vitamins and fruit juices, and she does not seem to eat anything during her working day, which often lasts late into the night. She is often dressed in expensive designer clothes and high heels.

She says she does not like being photographed, yet in recent months she has appeared on the cover of some of Elle magazine’s European editions and Poland’s May issue of Playboy, where she appeared – fully clothed, of course – because readers had said she was the woman they most respected. Many view her as a sex symbol, and Tymoshenko admits she sometimes exploits her femininity, but claims her best weapons are sound and persuasive arguments.

One morning is devoted to presiding over a meeting with the French ambassador, some of the top executives from one of France’s most prestigious companies, several of her ministers and representatives from Ukrainian business. Tymoshenko is the only woman in the room with 18 men. It’s clear that her intellect and glamour hold a fascination for most in the meeting.

Another day, Tymoshenko discovers that her government’s attempt to regain control of a large smelting plant that had been auctioned off at cut-price rates to an ally of the former regime is being undermined, minutes ahead of a crucial board meeting. She telephones the state official who is scuppering her plans. Dissatisfied with his explanation, she tells him to reconsider for 10 minutes, after which time she will talk to him again: “You’re supposed to be serving the state, not helping out a crook.” During the interval she furiously works the three phones on her desk and two mobile phones to get information about him.

It emerges that the official was appointed by the former president Leonid Kuchma, the procedure for firing him has to be approved by parliament, and he is probably in league with the businessman. When Tymoshenko calls him again, he prevaricates. Without raising her voice she says: “If you continue to side with this criminal who’s been ripping off Ukraine, things will end badly for you. I’m going to adjourn the meeting for one hour to let you change your mind.”

After finishing that conversation she phones one of her staff and says of the errant official: “The man is corrupt and is not going to change his mind. Find out how we fire him.”

A conversation for our benefit? Probably not. After a few seconds she resumes our interview, perfectly composed, and talks about her early life. Does the fairy-tale heroine have a rags-to-riches story? Of course. She was born Yulia Hryhyan in 1960 in one of Ukraine’s biggest industrial cities, Dnipropetrovsk, when the republic was part of the USSR, an only child raised by a mother she adores. Tymoshenko is reluctant to talk about her father, except to say he was not around to bring her up. Even by the then prevailing Soviet standards, she says she and her mother were considered poor and able to afford few comforts in their tiny flat in a dilapidated high-rise. She did well at school and went on to study economics at Dnipropetrovsk University. And it would seem fate played a part in her story. She said the course of her life was changed by a chance phone call made by a man who had misdialled. She was pleased when he rang again, this time deliberately. After a series of conversations, the two agreed to meet. They swiftly fell in love and married in 1979. Her husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, was also an impecunious student. When their daughter was born the next year it was a mixed blessing. The couple continued their studies and took back-breaking jobs for paltry wages in their spare time to get money to buy food and clothes for their baby. One of Yulia’s jobs was shifting and stacking huge tyres, twice the size of a man, in the factory where they were made.

In the second half of the 1980s, things were changing as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his perestroika reforms to liberalise the centralised economy that had forbidden private endeavour and enterprise.

The Tymoshenkos grabbed the chance to work for themselves. They borrowed cash from Oleksandr’s father, a well-connected communist official, and set up a number of modest sites where the paying public could see videos of Hollywood films. The “video salons” gave them the cash to start trading in petrol and diesel, and the connections and money they made turned them into Ukraine’s largest electricity provider. At least, this is the tale as Tymoshenko would have it told – it clashes with the version not only provided by her detractors but also by some of her friends. One of the senior opposition politicians in the orange coalition, who is still friendly towards Tymoshenko, said of her dealings: “To ordinary people, the way she and other oligarchs conducted their business seemed crooked, and morally it probably was. But it ’s been hard to prove the deals were illegal, as they were usually done within laws that had been created to enable the chosen few to exploit them.”

The energy sector was, and still is, the most lucrative and corrupt segment of business in the former Soviet Union. Those with connections to Ukraine’s then president, Kuchma, exploited loopholes that meant the state budget paid for electricity manufacture, but Kuchma’s cronies made huge, no-risk profits by selling electricity to local authorities and nationalised industries. Tymoshenko says that as head of a company called United Energy Systems of Ukraine – once credited with an annual turnover of $10 billion – she never made more than $5,000 per month and worked with Ukraine’s interests at heart.

At that time she was believed to be the wealthiest woman in the former USSR. She was able to send her daughter to be educated privately in Britain, first at Rugby, then at the LSE. Her main residence in Ukraine remains a palatial abode she had built in her home city. Her story captured the popular imagination and the media dubbed her “the Gas Princess”. She was known for generous donations to charities and to churches. Contributions to sports charities led to a local youth football team being named after her.

Among her closest business collaborators was Pavel Lazarenko, an oligarch crony of Kuchma’s, whom Kuchma later made prime minister. Kuchma and Lazarenko became fabulously wealthy, with the latter buying luxury homes in the US, including Eddie Murphy’s Hollywood mansion. But the two fell out when Lazarenko exhibited an ambition to become president. In 1999 he fled Ukraine and was arrested trying to enter the US on a Panamanian passport. He was held in prison on accusations of money-laundering and other financial misdeeds. Lazarenko told the US authorities that Kuchma had taken a cut of every dodgy deal the former president was involved in. Lazarenko was found guilty of financial misdeeds by a court in San Francisco last year, but is yet to be sentenced.

In 1996 “the Gas Princess” decided to run for parliament and won her seat with a huge majority. “Every normal person who saw what was going on in government could not be on the same side of the barricades as Kuchma,” she says. “He was destroying our national interests. There was complete deception, complete corruption, and an absolute absence of any justice.” She said the Kuchma government used the courts and intimidation against her family and colleagues to persuade her to fall in line. Knowing Kuchma would declare war against her, she formed her own party and became one of Kuchma’s fiercest critics.

In 1999, to bring respectability to his administration, increasingly attacked by western governments, Kuchma appointed as prime minister a man who enjoyed a reputation for honesty and economic competence inside and outside Ukraine: Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko appointed Tymoshenko as his deputy. He knew that the success of his government, and his pledge to make good on hundreds of millions of dollars in wage arrears to state employees and pensions, depended on curbing rampant corruption in the energy sector. Tymoshenko was the person who had the poacher-turned-gamekeeper expertise to do that. She interrupted some of the most lucrative scams, which resulted in more than a billion dollars becoming available for back pay and pensions. But the anti-corruption campaign hurt some of Kuchma’s top associates, and the president moved to protect his friends. Tymoshenko’s husband was arrested on trumped-up fraud charges. Soon after, in 2000, Kuchma fired Tymoshenko, who was arrested on faked charges. “They put me in a filthy cell that hadn’t been cleaned for years,” she says. “I demanded a rag and bucket of water. I cleaned my cell thoroughly, then hung the rag over the spyhole. I told the wardens that if they took away that rag, I’d go on hunger strike.” The wardens obeyed her, but she stayed in prison for six weeks until a Kiev court ordered her release, saying there was no case to answer.

Soon after Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, Kuchma engineered a vote of no confidence in Yushchenko to eject him from the prime minister’s job. But in its short term in office, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko team had gained huge popularity, and in the following years they laid the groundwork for an opposition coalition of democratic parties. Meanwhile, Kuchma’s standing at home and abroad fell after he was implicated in the murder of a journalist and the sale of weapons to Saddam Hussein. Unable to stand for president again, Kuchma first appointed as prime minister and then nominated as presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, a man twice convicted of robbery and linked to Ukraine’s wealthiest, most sinister oligarch.

In 2004, long before the coalition opposition officially chose its presidential candidate, Tymoshenko announced she herself would not stand, but would throw her weight behind Yushchenko. Opinion polls showed Yushchenko would win in a fair election, but Kuchma’s administration would never allow that to happen. It organised massive voting fraud in the first and second election round, where Yushchenko and Yanukovych faced each other in a runoff.

It was after the second round, in November 2004, that protesters took to the streets. Tymoshenko’s eloquence enthralled the crowds, and while her opposition comrades counselled restraint and negotiations, she led protesters to surround key government buildings where demonstrators faced special police with helmets, riot shields and guns. After protesters surrounded the presidential administration offices, she agreed to go inside the heavily defended building to negotiate with Kuchma. Many advised her not to go in, because they feared the regime would arrest her or worse. She walked in and everyone waited in the night as heavy snowflakes fell on riot police and demonstrators. When Tymoshenko emerged she was greeted with a great cheer. The fairy-tale heroine had displayed courage, confronting the beast in its lair and returning triumphant.

And yet there’s always another monster to slay. And some aren’t easy to pin down. Tymoshenko has stated she still wants Kuchma – who is currently lying low in Ukraine – brought to justice. Law-enforcement agencies are working to untangle what happened during his time in office, whether he has foreign accounts and where they are. In challenging Russia’s oil monopoly, she brought on a petrol crisis in May. For a few days, Russia stopped oil supplies, causing shortages throughout the country.

A fairy-tale heroine doesn’t always win universal admiration. One of her deputy prime ministers, Anatoly Kinakh, went on TV to criticise her, saying she was more interested in gaining popularity than making vital changes to the economy. Other senior members of the government encouraged stories that she was not only behaving frivolously but had engineered the fuel crisis and economic crises involving the currency and the price of meat, to the advantage of some of her corrupt associates. Another accusation levelled at her is that her eagerness to review most of the thousands of privatisations conducted during the Kuchma era has created a climate of uncertainty that has discouraged much-needed foreign investment. In May it was reported that, during an argument, Yushchenko told Tymoshenko she should resign. Both later denied this and said Yushchenko made the comment in jest. But privately, Tymoshenko’s aides say that heated exchanges between her and Yushchenko have left her shaken, and that her opponents have thwarted her plans to hit hard at corruption because some of her opponents are corrupt themselves.

The Ukrainian president holds the lion’s share of political power, but changes in 2006 will devolve much of it to the prime minister. Tymoshenko says she does not want extra power, and wants Yushchenko to continue as leader. However, Tymoshenko’s party has been growing in strength, with defectors joining from other parties. Under Ukrainian law, she cannot be forced out until she has served a year, but some predict she will resign this year to distance herself from the government before next spring’s elections.

The prospect of such a split dismays those who braved harsh weather and possible violence to support Yushchenko and Tymoshenko last year. Yet, if you close your eyes and make a wish, a fairy-tale outcome may still be possible. Why? Because the heroine believes in it herself, though in politics sincere belief is not the same as true knowledge: “My life and my faith are completely linked. I have faith in love, goodness, justice and, as in the fairy tales, I believe in the end, good always triumphs.”

Source: Sunday Times Magazine