I knocked Julia Ioffe a few weeks ago for prejudging Russia’s efforts to develop nanotechnology. But her latest article, Kiev Chameleon, on the political malleability of Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko has made up for it. It’s an eye opener for the uninitiated in Ukrainian politics. Ukrainians go to the polls on 17 January to elect a new President. Polls have Viktor Yanukovich leading with Tymoshenko trailing some 20 percentage points in what the Financial Times is calling Beauty and the Beast. Viktor Yushchenko, the dioxin scarred face of the Orange Revolution, is not even a factor given under his tenure 74 percent Ukrainians have began to think that “their country is on an unstable path.” Ioffe’s profile on Tymoshenko shows how the lady, who was so wedded with the now discredited Yushchenko, refuses to go down with the citrus ship.
If this election is akin to a Disney production, then Yulia Tymoshenko is the real star. Her ability to change her political spots, outwitting her allies and opponents along the way, is encapsulated in her many potential monikers: Evita, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Gas Princess, Lady Macbeth, and Vladimir Putin. Given her ability to be all these seemingly at once, or individually depending on which way the political winds are blowing, one wonders what kind of career the braided one would have had on stage and screen. Alas, we’ll never know since she chose to act in the drama that is Ukrainian politics. Tymoshenko’s continued rise is emblematic of something else. Namely, that little colored revolution that captivated the world five years ago was nothing more than oligarchic war by other means.
For her part Tymoshenko hides her plutocratic underpinning well. All too well, for many. When it comes to model personages, Evita stands out among them all. In fact, Dmitry Vydrin, Tymoshenko’s former close advisor, told Ioffe that Tymoshenko has purposely modeled herself after the Argentinian diva:
“She was told she is the reincarnation of Eva Perón,” says Dmitry Vydrin, who was Tymoshenko’s close adviser for nearly a decade. “And she believes it. She admits it in closed circles. She copies her consciously and subconsciously.” There’s the elaborate, kaleidoscopic wardrobe; the bleached up-do; the theatrical mannerisms; the way the public rustles whenever she appears. “It’s that way of flirting with the public, of addressing them as ‘my loved ones,’” Vydrin says. And there are the men whom the two women used to get out of poverty, but then brightly eclipsed. For Evita, it was her husband, Argentine President Juan Perón; for Tymoshenko, it was a string of well-connected men, starting with her father-in-law and ending with Ukraine’s current president and hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko.
Despite her ability to play off her good looks, femininity, and coquettishness, it is the “string of well-connected men” that has moved Tymoshenko from a lowly komsomolka to a powerful player in post-Soviet Ukraine, and now Presidential contender. It is Tymoshenko’s professional biography, as Ioffe details it, that makes her typically atypical. Typical in the fact that like most post-Soviet political sluggers, her rise has been paved with connections with the former Soviet elite. Atypical because she’s managed to do it as a woman in a sexist atmosphere. Still it has been her connections, not to mention tenacity, that has smoothed over any potential gender barriers. Her father-in-law, a former regional Communist Party boss, facilitated her (and her husband, Oleksandr’s) entry into the gasoline business. Her rise in the political area was aided by connections with “political kingpin” Pavlo Kazarenko, who helped her “form United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UES), a gas-trading company that was, essentially, a lucrative money-laundering operation.” That is to say, Tymoshenko made her money like most post-Soviet oligarchs: some shuckin’ over here and some jivin’ over there. When the political winds changed in the mid-1990s, and her patron Kazarenko was sacked by then President Kuchma, Tymoshenko linked up with another “rising star”: Viktor Yushchenko.
But it was during Ukraine’s Orange (so-called) Revolution in late 2004 that allowed Tymoshenko to undergo “her most stunning transformation yet.”
The brunette in a power suit was gone: As the lieutenant of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko emerged as Ukraine personified. She appeared in a braided blonde crown and the embroidery of a Ukrainian peasant, and she refused to speak Russian, instead addressing the masses in her new tongue. “People saw her readiness to self-sacrifice, her leadership. She was a combination of Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, who chairs Kiev’s Center for Political Studies. It was then that the Gas Princess became, simply, “Yulia.”
It was with “Yulia” strewn across the back of her jersey that allowed her to take the field in the big leagues. Backing the Orange plebs paid off with the Prime Ministership. But when Yushchenko stripped her of that in 2005, she made amends with her opponents to recapture the position by one vote, and continued to pummel her former comrade-in-arms Yushchenko, using whatever means necessary to stay in power.
According to Ioffe, it is Tymoshenko’s political adaptability, her chameleon-like talent, that has made her “the only man among the men in national politics.” If a strong hand is needed, there she is. If a giggly, damsel is required, she’s there. If a “tyrannical boss” is called for, look out! Per the last persona: she ran gas magnate Dmitry Firtash out of business for not backing her, and has even hinted at “nationalizing the property of many oligarchs” (i.e. all but her property and that of her allies). She has even called for life sentences for “most” corrupt officials. “I sometimes even envy China, where… they chop off hands, order death penalty [for corrupt officials]. Of course, we cannot treat [them] in such a way, as we are a European country. Although fingers itch sometimes,” she said in a statement which is nothing short of a populist overture to the electorate. Not bad for a candidate who dodge a question about the potential perils of dictatorship with “Who tells you that dictatorship is bad?” She tried to recover by saying she meant the “dictatorship of law,” but we get the point.
But the real question is what kind of leader the itchy fingered Tymoshenko will be if she actually wins. It’s a long shot, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation. Some think that she will transform herself again, perhaps this time into who she really is, a facsimile of the Tsar to the east, Vladimir Putin. Boy wouldn’t that be a cruel joke on the “democracy” (i.e. neoliberal) cheerleaders and professional NGO and civil society communities. Especially since she’s not all that much of a freemarketeer since according to Taras Berezovets, “She’s not liberal or market-oriented,” but maintains that the state has a fundamental role in the economy. Even better, the political and economic chaos over the last few years might have made many Ukrainians forget all about the dangers of dictatorship and hungry for “a strong hand.” The question is if she happens to pull a miraculous come-from-behind victory in a run-off, could her strong hand hold Ukraine together better than her former ally?