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After wild corruption marred the 2004 Ukranian elections, Yulia Tymoshenko urged people to grab the cheapest pieces of orange cloth they could find, tear them into ribbons and put them everywhere they could — a symbol of solidarity with the losing candidate, her ally and then-friend Viktor Yushchenko. Soon, hundreds of thousands were filling the streets of the capital city, Kiev, for the Orange Revolution. And each day, they were fed rousing speeches from Tymoshenko, whose anti-establishment heroism and defining blond halo braid caused the Western media to soon dub her the Joan of Arc of Ukraine.
The analogy to the martyred saint has only proven more apt with time. Because although those protests ended with Tymoshenko’s ascension from a lowly parliamentarian and former energy minister to prime minister of Ukraine, the years since have seen critics trying to burn her at the stake.
Indeed, Tymoshenko, 58, may be the most embattled and most persistent politician in a nation defined by being embattled and persistent for the past two decades. But while she has faced numerous political setbacks, polls for months have had her as the clear front-runner in Ukraine’s presidential elections in March. And with Ukraine caught in a near-constant geopolitical tug of war, it is fitting that Ukraine may just elect the woman known for her oscillating ties between Russia and the West.
Her inconsistencies are as numerous as her nicknames: the “Gas Princess,” “goddess of the Revolution” and the “Princess Leia of Ukranian politics,” to name a few.
“Today we are entering a new era — an era of success, of happiness, of enlightenment. Today we begin Ukraine’s journey toward real and powerful greatness,” Tymoshenko said when announcing her candidacy Tuesday while also acknowledging her critics. “I’ve made my mistakes. Maybe sometimes I’m wrong, but I’m wrong sincerely.”
Tymoshenko has experienced about as wild a ride in politics as can be imagined. After being named by Forbes as the third most powerful woman in the world in 2005, she was sacked just eight months into her tenure as Ukraine’s first female PM by President Yushchenko. Still, she persisted, touring the nation, building a groundswell of grassroots support and reclaiming her PM post from 2007 until 2010 — when she first ran for the presidency, lost and then was thrown in prison by the new government for corruption charges her allies said were political retribution. Finally freed in 2014 after protestors led a political revolt, she ran for president again, only to lose to now-president Petro Poroshenko.
The unpopularity of Poroshenko, says former CIA deputy director and OZY columnist John McLaughlin, may be Tymoshenko’s biggest asset this time around. But her shape-shifting nature leaves many puzzled. “It has always been hard to get a fix on where Tymoshenko stands on the issues plaguing Ukraine — her fluid positions and history allow her to be all things to all people there,” says McLaughlin.
Tymoshenko is currently running as a pro-Western candidate, urging Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to have close relations with the European Union. It suits the mood of a nation locked in a low-scale war with Russia since its larger neighbor’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But in the past, Tymoshenko has sidled up to Vladimir Putin — most notably by deciding not to condemn Russia’s decision to seize Georgia in 2008 and by awarding gas contracts to Moscow that Russia has been able to use since to bully Ukraine economically and politically. If she does win, her allegiances will have deep ramifications not just for Ukraine, but also for an unsteady Europe.
Conflicting ties have marked Tymoshenko’s political and personal life. Born Yulia Hrihyan, she grew up in what was then called Dnipropetrovsk, a Russian-speaking part of central Ukraine under the grasp of the Soviet Union (she spent years as a politician speaking mostly in Russian before finally making Ukranian a part of her repertoire). The daughter of a single mother — her father abandoned them — she graduated as both an engineer and an economist from Dnipropetrovsk State University. Despite her lowly start, she became rich in the notoriously ruthless and corrupt gas business. Her business partner, Pavlo Lazarenko, was later convicted in the U.S. of money laundering and embezzlement from the Ukrainian Treasury.
It’s just one of the many contradictions of Tymoshenko, whose inconsistencies are as numerous as her nicknames: the “Gas Princess,” “Goddess of the Revolution” and the “Princess Leia of Ukranian Politics,” to name a few. While promising to grow the Ukrainian economy, she simultaneously pledges to take on big banks, reverse gas tariffs and restore factories (despite no clear path for said factories to have economic viability). While promising to achieve peace with Russia, she also plans to strengthen European ties, particularly by joining NATO, an effort Putin almost certainly would try to stymie — perhaps by force.
While her positions may seem untenable, her political strength remains with the majority-making demographics of retirees and the disgruntled, low-income Ukrainians to whom she’s promised higher pensions and increased social supports. In any case, she has shed her former selves before, and nobody will be surprised should she shed them again. And, as McLaughlin notes, Tymoshenko “is a dynamic and charismatic character who just might be able to jumpstart progress on things like the long-stalled military conflict with Russia.”
Take note of the missing halo braid she once sported — a look that first helped spur her saintly reputation. The braid is now gone, and the message is clear: This is a new Tymoshenko, a reformer … or, if we’re getting technical, Tymoshenko the reformer turned insider turned reformer once again.
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