On Saturday, Yulia Tymoshenko, the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution and a politician who has come to be seen as the martyr of the Ukrainian opposition, walked out of jail a free woman.
Together with the impeachment and flight of President Viktor Yanukovych, her release, made possible by an act of parliament, marked the climax of Ukraine’s opposition movement. It’s a moment that will inevitably be compared to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Like the deceased hero of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, Tymoshenko has become a larger than life figure, one whose political persona has become ladened with the hopes and dreams of a political movement that seeks to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and toward the West. She has spent the past two and a half years in prison on corruption charges that have become widely seen as politically motivated. More importantly, her prison sentence and subsequent mistreatment while incarcerated have become exhibit a in the thuggish tactics of the Yanukovych administration.
The only problem? Yulia Tymoshenko is no Nelson Mandela. Where Madiba’s political instincts guided him toward a path of unity and compromise, Tymoshenko’s career has been marked by a confrontational streak that has often made her bulldog-tendencies her worst enemy. But that hasn’t stopped her from cultivating a martyr’s persona that she will inevitably utilize to cast herself as the solution to Ukraine’s political crisis.
Like Mandela’s journey from prison to a stadium in Soweto to deliver the post-imprisonment remarks that would come to define his political career, Tymoshenko travelled immediately from her prison hospital to the Maidan, the square in Kiev that has become the epicenter of the protest movement. She visited the memorials to the fallen, called them her heroes. Then she ascended the stage and delivered an impassioned speech praising the protest movement. "This is your victory," she said, speaking from a wheelchair. "No politician, no diplomat could do what you have done. You have removed this cancer from this country."
Appearing at times to fight back tears, she told the tens of thousands assembled in central Kiev that she would be the "guarantor" of the revolution. Already, mere hours after being released from prison at the behest of parliament, she is planning a run for president.
But it is far from clear that the protesters on the frontlines in Kiev will embrace her with open arms. While her release has been hailed as a major victory for the opposition to Yanukoych, there is no guarantee that such sentiment will translate into political support for Tymoshenko. According to one reporter in the crowd on the Maidan, she didn’t receive quite the hero’s welcome she might have hoped for:
Response to Yulia Tymoshenko’s speech is quite mixed. Many in crowd sceptical saying they don’t want her to be the next President. #Ukraine
— Duncan Crawford (@_DuncanC) February 22, 2014
That probably has a lot to do with Tymoshenko’s extremely complicated political legacy in Ukraine. When Ukrainians flooded the streets of Kiev in 2004 to protest the outcome of that year’s presidential elections, Tymoshenko became one of the icon’s of what came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Then, as now, 2004 saw the largely Ukrainian-speaking western half of the country pitted against the Pro-Russian and Russian-speaking east. Then, as now, Tymoshenko and her allies took Yanukovych, who in 2004 was accused of fradulently winning the presidential election.
The Orange Revolution came to a fairy-tale conclusion for the country’s pro-West political movement. They ousted Yanukovych and installed Viktor Yushchenko as president, with Tymoshenko as his prime minister. But once in office, the two bickered endlessly and frittered away the promise of the Orange Revolution. Ten years later, Ukraine’s economy remains fragile, unimpressive, and downright sluggish compared to its dynamic neighbor Poland.
After a tumultuous tenure as prime minister, Tymoshenko attempted to win the presidency in 2010. Her opponent was none other than Yanukovych, the man just booted from office. Though she had become a political super-star — now known simply as "Yulia" — she lost to Yanukovych in an election that was widely described as free and fair.
In the coming days, Tymoshenko will be trumpeted as a savior for Ukraine, a politician capable of uniting the country’s deeply divided eastern and western halves. What her backers will fail to mention is that she had the chance to do so during the 2010 elections. And failed.
Tymoshenko, in her quest for power and her antagonizing political style, has become a mercurial figure. Through her savvy use of symbolism and style, she has become not so much a globally recognized politician but an icon. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, she adopted the symbols of Ukrainian country life and clothing. She wears her hair in a coronet braid, which with her strikingly good looks sometimes gives her the appearance of a medieval saint, her stark features illuminated by this crown of hair. Add to that her savvy, fiery rhetoric and you have one of the most talented politicians in the world today.
But that styled veneer has sometimes translated into a less than tasteful ruthlessness. During her 2010 presidential campaign, she inflated fears of a swine flu outbreak in order to boost her political fortunes. She is also said to consider herself the reincarnation of Evita Peron, the wife of Argentine leader Juan Peron.
And though she will endlessly assail the Yanukovych administration for its corrupt ways, she is by no means untainted. During the 1990s, she accumulated a vast wealth as an energy executive during the suddenly deregulated period that immediately followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Much of that wealth is said to be squirreled away in overseas bank accounts.
(As for Yanukovych’s alleged corruption, she appears to have a point. On Saturday, protesters in Kiev broke into his presidential palace and discovered a private zoo, a private car collection, and a pirate galleon parked in a private lake. Watch the video below for a taste of what passes as strongman-chic these days:)
In recent days, talk has been growing of the potential geographic breakup of Ukraine between is Russian-friendly east and pro-Europe west, and while such a division seems a radical outcome at this stage, Tymoshenko is emblematic of the country’s linguistic divide. Born in Ukraine’s Russian speaking east, Tymoshenko had to teach herself how to speak Ukrainian and now refuses to use the Russian language. Despite her evident charisma and her embrace of the symbolism of Ukrainian nationalism, Tymoshenko has at times become her own worst enemy, losing political allies at crucial moments and isolating herself unnecessarily.
With a presidential election set for May 25, she now has the chance to redeem that political legacy. In order to do so she will have to overcome a set of enormous divisions and political obstacles, chief among them her 2010 rival and the man responsible for throwing her in jail two and a half years ago.
So far, Yanukovych has showed no sign of backing down. "I don’t plan to leave the country. I don’t plan to resign," he said during a television appearance Saturday afternoon. "I am a legitimately elected president."
"What is happening today, mostly, it is vandalism, banditism and a coup d’état. This is my assessment and I am deeply convinced of this," he added.
With no one in this crisis backing down, could Tymoshenko lead Ukraine out of the stand-off and heal the rift between east and west? Perhaps. But there is nothing in her political resume indicating how she might do so.