'Nothing But Revenge' Tymoshenko Helps Unite Opposition Ahead of Vote

From inside the hospital where she is being held, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is forging compromises to help unite Ukraine's fractured opposition parties. With a parliamentary election coming up this Sunday, she hopes to force out the current regime and secure her release.

Portraits of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at the United opposition bloc's pre-election tent in Donetsk, Ukraine.
REUTERS

Portraits of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at the United opposition bloc's pre-election tent in Donetsk, Ukraine.

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It takes a little detective work to find the TVi television station, across the street from "Milk Factory No. 1" near the main train station in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. It's not a very inviting neighborhood, especially after dark.

The live broadcast of the program Sogodni pro golowne, or "The Most Important News of the Day," begins at 7:30 each evening, and would be a standard political talk show if not for two unique features. First, TVi is the last independent broadcaster in the country, and it openly supports the opposition. And second, host Mustafa Nayem is a veritable thorn in the side of the regime in Kiev.

Today's topic: Will the opposition finally defeat the governing party of unpopular President Viktor Yanukovich in parliamentary elections on Oct. 28? And which of its politicians should the opposition thrust into the spotlight in the last days before the vote? Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former economics minister and foreign minister in the government of former President Viktor Yushchenko, whom came into power after the Orange Revolution? Or Vitali Klitschko, the reigning World Boxing Council heavyweight champion?

"Yatsenyuk?" host Nayem asks. The delicate-looking lawyer with glasses and thinning hair, completely lacking in charisma? A man many in this xenophobic country erroneously think is a Jew? "But what do you want with Klitschko?" a political scientist argues. "The man isn't a politician."

It's strange to hear the opposition discussing its prospects in this Sunday's election while making no mention of the regime's most important opponent. Not a word is spoken about Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition's top candidate, though her imprisonment renders her position to be one that is purely symbolic.

'As Ladylike as Ever'

On this evening, the former prime minister remains where she has been for the last six months: in a room with barred windows at the Railway Hospital in Kharkiv, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Kiev. President Yanukovich, hoping to eliminate his political archrival, had Tymoshenko sentenced to seven years in prison last fall. But despite his efforts, she continues to make regular headlines, such as when she demanded to be admitted to a hospital because of a painful herniated disc. She also attracted media attention when she insisted on being treated by German doctors, claimed that she was being mistreated by prison personnel and, finally, staged a hunger strike before the European soccer championships this summer.

Only been a few stories have come out of the hospital in Kharkiv since this summer, though. On one such occasion, the former prime minister accused prison authorities of deliberately exposing her to high levels of radiation, and on another she slept on the concrete floor in front of the door to her room when fellow party members were not allowed to visit.

A video released in late September shows Tymoshenko in jeans and a white cardigan. A guard tries to calm her down as she takes off a shoe and bangs it against a locked door. Many in Kiev had seen the video before long -- upon closer inspection it turned out that her shoes had 10-centimeter heels. "Even behind bars, Tymoshenko is as ladylike as ever," wrote the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, insinuating that a woman suffering from lower back pain would never wear high heels.

Is it possible that her health isn't as bad as she makes it out to be? When he visited her on the Sunday before last, Karl Max Einhäupl, the head of Berlin's Charité Hospital, found that Tymoshenko's pain had "decreased significantly" and that her overall mobility had "increased."

Tymoshenko Falls Silent

It's autumn in Kiev, and the chestnut trees on Khreschatyk Street, the city's main boulevard, have already dropped their leaves. A small tent city put up by Tymoshenko supporters still stands in front of the building at building number 44 on the street, but inside, at the "Art Club 44," they're celebrating John Lennon's birthday. No one here talks about Tymoshenko anymore.

Perhaps Tymoshenko herself senses the change. The 51-year-old politician, who rarely misses an opportunity to be in the limelight, has fallen silent. Still, she did write an open letter in September, accusing President Yanukovich of having transformed a country that was oriented toward Europe into a dictatorship, and calling upon the West to issue a visa ban against members of the government, freeze their assets and launch international criminal proceedings against them for corruption.

But where is Tymoshenko's voice in the final hours of this election campaign? "She is saying nothing," says Valery Kalnysh, editor-in-chief of the major Kiev daily newspaper Kommersant Ukraina. "She'll have to stay up nights to give enough interviews and issue enough statements for people to remember her now."

Is she suffering from depression? Has she realized that she is powerless? Or is it a calculated move? Her confidants say that she is focusing on only one goal: to gain a majority for the opposition in parliament and force the current regime out of power. "Nothing but revenge" informs her actions, says a friend, "even if the party falls apart as a result."

Uniting Opposition Parties

In fact, Tymoshenko, even while imprisoned, has managed to force part of the divided opposition to form a unified front, the core of which consists of her party, the All-Ukrainian Union, or "Fatherland" party, and Yatsenyuk's Front for Change. Yatsenyuk has taken over Tymoshenko's role, leading the newly formed United Opposition in the fight for the 225 seats in parliament that are assigned to political parties. After the election, the group intends to cooperate in parliament with Klitschko's Alliance for Reform and the nationalist Freedom Party. This coalition of three groups is ahead of the president's coalition in recent polls.

The remaining 225 seats are assigned by direct mandate in the provinces. To increase the chances of regime opponents, Tymoshenko has called upon her party to withdraw its own candidates in races where other opposition candidates are in a better position to win. On the Sunday before last, her fellow party members obediently complied with her wishes and took 26 candidates out of the running, which benefits Klitschko, whose party has candidates leading in several administrative districts.

If the opposition managed to win a majority, it could push through an amnesty law it has already drafted, but it needs at least 300 votes to do so. That would open the prison gates for Tymoshenko and enable her to exact revenge on Yanukovich in the 2015 presidential election. And that election is her only goal at the moment. But will the unified opposition front last beyond Sunday's parliamentary election? Tymoshenko is constantly sending letters to Yatsenyuk from prison, asking him to ensure that her portrait continues to be displayed in the streets. But the former minister, who isn't on good terms with Tymoshenko and has his own presidential aspirations, isn't complying with her wishes.

Klitschko has also remained aloof when it comes to Tymoshenko. He sees his prospects improving now that the polls show his party unseating Tymoshenko's party from the second-place spot. His success has less to do with his call for "European standards for everyone" than with the impression Klitschko made on voters when he defended his world championship title on television. Ukrainians see him as little more than a nice guy.

Taking Risks

Tymoshenko knows that she is holding her fellow party members hostage to her own ambitions, but she apparently doesn't care. Under normal circumstances, most of the politicians in her Fatherland party who already hold seats in parliament would be reelected to those seats. But many will lose their seats as a result of the compromise with Klitschko and other opposition parties. It's doubtful that those who will now win those seats, thanks to Tymoshenko, will support her in the 2015 presidential campaign.

The former prime minister is also hazarding the possibility that something revolutionary could happen on Oct. 28. For the first time in Ukraine and in the post-Soviet region, the right-wing extremist forces of the ultranationalist Freedom Party could enter parliament. Ukrainians' disappointment with the Orange Revolution has increased their popularity, and they already control the mayor's offices in many towns of the Galician regions. Tymoshenko is partly responsible for voters' acceptance of the far right, and now she needs it to achieve a majority in parliament.

Freedom Party Chairman Oleh Tyahnybok, 43, a doctor and lawyer from the western city of Lviv, is the Ukrainian version of former Austrian far-right politician Jörg Haider. On a recent October day, he unveiled his party's first proposed legislation to the press. It relates to pension policies, real estate speculation and the fight against the oligarchs. "We have a social plan," says Tyahnybok, trying to portray himself as impartial. He is trying to shed his party's reputation as a pariah, a party in the tradition of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which cooperated with Hitler's Wehrmacht for a time. True to its motto "Ukraine for Ukrainians," the Freedom Party views both Russians and Jews as occupiers.

Members of the far-right party are now frequently guests on the TVi studio, but no one knows how many Ukrainians are even able to watch its programs anymore. Since TVi exposed how the president's party is buying votes throughout the country, the station was removed from 97 of the country's 500 cable networks. It no longer receives advertising from the governing party, and this year TVi expects to be some €6 million ($7.8 million) in debt.

When the government demanded the payment of €370,000 in back taxes within 10 days, the head of the station appealed to viewers, raising three-quarters of the money within only a week. It was a good sign for Ukraine.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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