In Other Words

Ukraine’s Warrior Princess

Nevyipolnennyi Zakaz (Unfulfilled Orders)  By P. Loza 95 pages, Kiev: Taki Spravi, 2002 (in Russian) Fighting a brace of corrupt and cynical strongmen, Yulia Tymoshenko is the most glittering figure in Ukraine’s struggle for democracy. Her biographer compares her to Lady Diana, dubbing her "Ukraine’s very own Princess." Others, paying tribute to her maverick traits, ...

Nevyipolnennyi Zakaz (Unfulfilled Orders) 
By P. Loza
95 pages, Kiev: Taki Spravi, 2002 (in Russian)

Fighting a brace of corrupt and cynical strongmen, Yulia Tymoshenko is the most glittering figure in Ukraine’s struggle for democracy. Her biographer compares her to Lady Diana, dubbing her "Ukraine’s very own Princess." Others, paying tribute to her maverick traits, brand her an "Iron Princess" or a "Joan of Arc." Already, at age 42, she has started two factories, two political parties, and one national platform rallying for reform. She offers beauty tips in the international fashion magazine Harper and Queens (her secret for blemish-free skin: soap and boiling water). And she would very much like to become the next president of Ukraine.

Tymoshenko has her work cut out for her. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has been trapped in a sputtering process of reform, with three main oligarchic clans fighting for control over the economy, the political system, and the judiciary. President Leonid Kuchma, continually finding himself in the midst of scandal — as when a cassette tape implicated him in the gruesome murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000 — has relied on the three clans for political support. With one out of four Ukrainians living below the poverty line, widespread public discontent could fuel the makings of a belated Ukrainian Velvet Revolution. Eight out of 10 Ukrainians want Kuchma to step down before the end of his term, but only 1 out of 10 is ready to expedite his departure by protesting openly — and under risk — in the street. Unlike in other former communist countries, such as neighboring Poland, a grass-roots opposition movement has yet to spring up in Ukraine.

Last year, Tymoshenko led her self-named, antioligarch party, the "Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc," into Parliament with 7 percent of the popular vote, a notable success in an election that Western observers declared not fully free and fair. In the run-up to these elections, the publishing house Taki Spravi (So It Goes) released 900,000 copies of Tymoshenko’s biography, Nevyipolnennyi Zakaz (Unfulfilled Orders). As is so often the case with Ukrainian texts, the book is poorly structured by the standards of Western readers. (P. Loza, the author, is a pseudonym for the popular screenwriter Yuriy Rohoza who works in Ukrainian television.) But nobody in the West would have difficulty recognizing the true nature of this biography: It is the literary equivalent of a campaign video. Banned by the government from making television appearances, Tymoshenko relied on this romanticized account of her life to burnish her credentials as a humble populist — a difficult task for one of the wealthiest, most glamorous women in Ukraine — and to defend her good name. After publication of the book, Kuchma sought revenge against his prodigious challenger. Tax authorities raided Taki Spravi’s offices more than 30 times between March and November 2002, often using armed police, seizing office equipment, while reportedly focusing on documents related to Unfulfilled Orders. Faced with financial losses and negative publicity, the publishing house’s boss had to lay off 279 of his 304 employees.

The biography recounts, Cinderella-style, how Tymoshenko was raised in an underprivileged, working-class household. Until she was 30 years old, she and her husband and daughter lived in relative poverty, a narrative underscored by photographs showing Tymoshenko doing housework (Ukraine is still a long way from achieving gender equality). In 1990, Tymoshenko, a trained economist, decided to go into business, and she recalls proudly how she started up two of the first private factories in Ukraine and how she plowed profits back into these businesses. As her business empire grew, she says she was inevitably drawn into the political world, evolving from neutrality to radical opposition to the Kuchma government, from oligarch to dissident oligarch.

From 1995 to 1997, she headed the gas-trading company United Energy Systems, worth $1 billion; critics say the company grew fat from illegitimate government contracts awarded by former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko (now on trial in the United States for money laundering). In 2000, she joined the government of then-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, the only reform cabinet Ukraine has had since 1991. When asked why he had chosen Tymoshenko as his deputy prime minister in charge of energy, Yushchenko reportedly replied, "you need a crook to catch a crook." Only Tymoshenko knew the complicated and highly corrupt energy sector. Her relentless reforms returned more than $3 billion to the state coffers, a sum previously siphoned off annually by the oligarchs. Because she had done her work too well, Kuchma fired her in 2001. Since then, the government has repeatedly attempted to imprison her and her husband on accusations of corruption.

Not surprisingly, she rejects charges that her stewardship of United Energy Systems was in any way corrupt. But her denials seem implausible. In the Commonwealth of Independent States, all who were involved in business affairs in the 1990s either had to infringe upon or bend the rules. Tymoshenko was likely no exception. The best that can be said of her past misdeeds is that her guilt is shared by Kuchma and most oligarchs who made a fortune speculating on energy. With unintended irony, she once told an interviewer that, in Ukraine, "any person who has worked a single day in business can be put in jail."

Such glib comments have not increased her political capital. In recent polls, she trails well behind other presidential candidates for the 2004 election, including her former political mentor and leading opposition figure, Yushchenko, whom she belittles in her biography as "tragic" and a "soft politician." Ukraine’s reformers would best serve their cause if they stepped aside and threw their support behind Yushchenko. The odds of that seem slim, however, given the competing egos and agendas of the opposition leaders. Yushchenko could strike a deal and align himself with Tymoshenko, offering her the position of prime minister if he wins. That strategy, however, would alienate the oligarchs, who could deliver important votes. Yushchenko’s best bet might be to keep Tymoshenko at a distance, maintain his moderate stance, and hope that the pro-presidential camp will disintegrate as the elections approach.

Such divisions are already apparent. Kuchma has yet to find a successor who would be acceptable to all the clans, be willing to grant him immunity from future prosecutions, and still stand a chance of winning the election. The success of the democratic opposition in Ukraine’s presidential elections ultimately may depend less on unrest from below than unrest from the top.

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