Is Ukraine’s Joan of Arc Ready for Political Battle?

During her time in Russian prison, Nadiya Savchenko became a symbol for Kiev’s fight against Moscow. But can she make the jump from martyr to politician?


KIEV, Ukraine — Within a few days, Nadiya Savchenko went from a Russian prison cell to the floor of the Ukrainian Parliament. The 35-year-old pilot had spent nearly two years in captivity after Russia charged her with complicity in the deaths of two journalists in eastern Ukraine. Draping a Ukrainian flag over her shoulders and carrying a smaller Crimean Tatar flag, she stoically approached the lectern at the front of the hall and took down the banner that lawmakers had hung there calling for her release. She then replaced it with a different banner—this one for the Ukrainians still being held in Russia. In a glimpse of the political firebrand she could become, Savchenko, channeling the popular disappointment with the government of President Petro Poroshenko, chastised the roomful of politicians.

“I won’t let you sitting in these seats in the Verkhovna Rada forget about the guys who started laying down their lives for Ukraine on Maidan and [who] continue to die for her,” she said in her first speech to the national legislature. “They are still standing and won’t lie down in their graves until we get that Ukraine they died for.”

Outspoken, strong-willed, and unabashedly blunt, Savchenko is not one to mince her words. Captured by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 while fighting with a volunteer battalion in the Donbass region, Savchenko’s bold defiance throughout her imprisonment made her a national symbol for Ukraine’s larger struggle against Russia and saw her voted into Parliament in absentia in October 2014. Since her release, she has taken the Ukrainian media by storm: making headlines with straight talk about the sad state of the country’s politics, the ongoing war in the east, and the teetering national economy.

The day of her return to Ukraine, Savchenko refused to adhere to Poroshenko’s plan and be whisked from Kiev’s airport to the president’s quarters for her first press appearance. Instead, she delivered her first remarks as a free woman barefoot at the airport. The former prisoner has continued to defy convention and to make waves in Ukrainian politics, referring to herself as a “ballistic missile,” warning that the Ukrainian Parliament “fucks people over every day” and that she won’t participate, and telling members of Parliament that they are all aboard the Titanic and headed for disaster.

Savchenko’s whirlwind entry into Ukrainian politics became possible after she was finally released following months of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials. In March, a Russian court sentenced her to 22 years in jail for complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists killed by artillery. Western governments criticized proceedings as a show trial. On May 25, Savchenko was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin and exchanged for two Russian intelligence officers captured in eastern Ukraine, catapulting her into the center of Ukrainian politics.

Her release from Russia and entrance onto the Ukrainian political scene mark a watershed moment. At a time of flagging support for the pro-Western government, many Ukrainians view her as the country’s most influential politician, despite previously never having spent a working day in Parliament. Savchenko’s comments have fired up Ukrainians desperate for a passionate and trustworthy leader, showing an outpour of public support since her arrival.

During her time in captivity, local media and activists dubbed her a modern-day Joan of Arc, a martyr role she accepted, taking on the cause of Ukrainian statehood. Savchenko missed the collapse of the grand post-Maidan coalition of all pro-Western parties and the exit of Ukraine’s foreign-born reformers such as former Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, who was not reappointed to the new cabinet, and former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavičius and Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Eka Zguladze, both of whom resigned. So when Savchenko speaks she is still full of the vigor and commitment more reminiscent of the speeches made on Maidan’s main stage during the height of the demonstrations than the uninspired speeches given by Ukrainian politicians in recent months. Her years in confinement not only turned Savchenko into a canonized war hero in the eyes of the public, but they also made her into a relic of the revolutionary enthusiasm from the Maidan protests that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych. The question that remains, however, is whether the former pilot can make the jump from political symbol to effective politician.

That answer may come sooner rather than later. Savchenko has already shown herself to be a potential threat to Ukraine’s establishment. Securing Savchenko’s release was a major victory for Poroshenko at a moment when reforms have stalled. It’s a mark of success on which Poroshenko is looking to capitalize; as he stated proudly in the wake of her release, Ukraine would take back Crimea and eastern Ukraine just as it had Savchenko.

And though Ukraine’s political leadership long lobbied for her release, it may not have considered that she had political goals of her own. During her first news conference after being released, Savchenko said that if the Ukrainian people wanted her to run for president she would. Immediately afterward Facebook groups began appearing supporting her presidential run. While releasing Savchenko may have given Poroshenko — whose approval rating has been hovering around 10 percent — a popularity boost, he may have created a long-term political rival.

But Poroshenko may not be the only politician to obstruct Savchenko’s rise — resistance to her political aspirations may also come from within her political party. Political observers in Ukraine are forecasting a conflict between Savchenko and her perennial Fatherland party leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. “From the first day in the Parliament we saw how Savchenko was accepted by the public and MPs. Yulia Tymoshenko seems sidelined now, which she doesn’t like of course,” said Taras Berezovets, director of Berta Communications, a Kiev-based political consultancy, who once worked as a strategist for Tymoshenko.

Before Savchenko’s entry onto the political scene, Tymoshenko, known for her trademark single braid, had been the highest-profile female politician in Ukrainian politics and has repeatedly fought for and failed to win the president’s seat. And, like Savchenko, Tymoshenko was imprisoned on what Western governments considered politically motivated charges. When Tymoshenko was released in February 2014, however, events did not play out as she had planned. Despite her two and a half years in prison and attempts by her party to present her as a martyr, she was booed on Maidan’s stage, with many associating her with corruption from her time as prime minister. Poroshenko later crushed her in the presidential election in May 2014, and then Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – who had run the party during her imprisonment —broke ranks with Tymoshenko and started his own party. In the aftermath, Tymoshenko offered Savchenko, still in prison at the time, the No. 1 spot on the party list and formed a de facto alliance.

Now that Savchenko is back, Ukraine watchers are waiting to see if the war hero follows Tymoshenko’s lead or breaks out on her own. “She has the demeanor to be a good politician,” Berezovets says. “The problem is that she is not experienced and if she allows someone to be her puppeteer this would mean she would lose her place under the sun.” In the past, Ukrainian political leaders have used other high-profile figures — athletes and celebrities — to give the illusion of change in their parties while continuing politics as usual.

For now, at least, Savchenko seems to be playing along with her party, says Alex Ryabchyn, a lawmaker with the Fatherland party who entered politics after Maidan. “She is a team player. She knows what she knows and what she doesn’t and asks when she doesn’t. She learns quickly.”

Though Savchenko has tremendous public support, it remains unclear what she, a single member of Parliament, can achieve with her two highly publicized banner causes: the release of prisoners from Russia and Russian-backed separatists, and curtailing military corruption. But she appears, for the moment, confident in her newfound status. “Before I had to knock to get to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; now they knock on mine,” she told television Channel 112 Ukraine. Having successfully petitioned the Defense Ministry to make her the first woman allowed to attend an elite air force university after serving as a Ukrainian peacekeeper in Iraq, she is used to pressuring Ukrainian military bureaucracy and seeing results.

That military experience, as well as having fought with the volunteer Aidar battalion in eastern Ukraine, is another gold star on Savchenko’s pre-political resume and earned her credibility on the war with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. During her first news conference, Savchenko said that “peace is possible only through war,” leading experts to worry that she would push for renewed fighting and an end to the unpopular Minsk peace accords, which are seen by many Ukrainians as saddling the country with the financial cost of rebuilding the east while leaving it under de facto Russian control. But she quickly walked back that statement a few days later on the political talk show “Shuster Live.”

Since then, Savchenko has continued to surprise her political detractors and chart her own course. She went to the front in the Donbass to meet with far-right former Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh but has also said she is prepared to negotiate peace with Russian-backed separatist leaders directly, a move Ukrainian leaders have previously categorically refused.

With her popularity rising and because she is shielded from criticism due to her status as a national symbol, Savchenko’s star can only rise. But even her sister, Vira Savchenko, worries about the personal toll her ordeal in Russia and a budding public career will take. “I am just sorry for her that she can’t even take time for herself,” said Vira, who was a persistent advocate for her sister’s release. “She can’t relax because everyone wants to get her involved with their programs.”

But beyond the sleepless nights, Savchenko’s weakened health from her hunger strikes and time in prison, Vira believes her sister possesses the inner strength to endure and overcome the challenges ahead.

“We have lost so much time and are losing our lives,” Vira Savchenko said. “[My sister] understands that there needs to be action.”

Photo credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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