By Erich Follath
There aren't many women in politics who are referred to by their first names -- not just by friends and family, but by entire nations: Take Evita in Argentina, for example, or Maggie in the United Kingdom. Yulia also belongs to this elite club, and her popularity may stem from the fact that she has so much in common with these other heroines. She and Mrs. Perón both rose from humble beginnings and charmed the public with their dazzling looks and glamorous appearances. Yulia and Mrs. Thatcher both have an iron, egomaniacal quality -- and they share the firm conviction that they are destined to play a great role in history. The Ukrainians, in any case, worship their Yulia or condemn her -- but virtually no one is left indifferent by Yulia Tymoshenko.
She was the ubiquitous face of the Orange Revolution, an icon with her trademark severe peasant-style braid crown -- the young woman warrior who drove the old guard out of office in late 2004. She served the new forces, also as prime minister, for a total of three and a half years, albeit with some interruptions. Now, she has been detained since Aug. 5, 2011. On Tuesday of last week, a court in Kiev sentenced her to seven years in prison for abuse of office.
Who is this Yulia Tymoshenko, 50, with her roller-coaster career -- a martyr for the cause of democracy or a careerist who gambled and lost in the game of power and politics? And what does her conviction mean for her future -- and for that of Ukraine, a country torn between pluralism and autocracy, and between Europe and Russia?
Heroic music wafts over Kiev's grand boulevard, the Khreshchatyk. Separated by only 10 meters (30 feet) -- and two police barricades -- the opponents have established their respective protest camps on the sidewalk. The pro-Yulia troops are on the left. "She has dedicated her life to this country" reads the message on the posters, which show Tymoshenko under the red heart that serves as the party's symbol. Here she is portrayed as a peasant leader with a sheaf of grain held in front of her chest, there wearing a designer outfit and standing alongside global political heavyweights such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and, time and again, she is shown with a silvery striped tiger -- which is obviously meant to imply that she could easily transform even the wildest beast into a bedside rug.
Toward the end of the week, however, after the initial outrage and protests over the verdict had subsided, the confrontational mood among the demonstrators in front of the courthouse was gradually replaced by a sense of defiant resignation. Most of the activists are somewhat elderly and have brought along folding chairs to make themselves more comfortable. One has cobbled together a statue of "blind justice" and another has set up a tossing game featuring a papier-mâché effigy of the president.
The nearby opposing camp is doing its best to restrain its feelings of triumph. "With Yulia behind bars, Ukraine can breathe easy," it says on one of the signs. These well-dressed demonstrators say that there is no need to worry -- the stern but fair president will set everything right: Viktor Yanukovych, 61, stands for stability, they say. The group is rather small. Most passersby under 50 simply keep walking -- as if everyone younger than that were embarrassed that someone might think that they cared about politics.
A Revolution Forgotten
It's practically inconceivable that young people staged mass demonstrations here less than seven years ago. The images of the revolution went around the world, just as they did with Prague in 1968 and Leipzig in 1989. On Maidan Nezalezhnosti (literally, Independence Square), hundreds of thousands gathered, pitched tents, paraded in their cars and, peacefully waving their orange scarves, organized concerts against an obviously rigged election. Again and again, the demonstrators chanted the names of those who they hoped would lead them to a brighter future: "Yulia, Yulia" and "Yushchenko, Yushchenko." The Ukrainians continued to protest until the government gave in and new elections were held, paving way for reformer Viktor Yushchenko's victory over the country's Moscow-backed rulers. Yushchenko was elected president and Tymoshenko became his prime minister.
Although Western PR consultants had helped orchestrate this rebellion, it was a genuine victory by a popular movement, celebrated with fireworks and fanfare.
Today, the euphoria has evaporated and Ukraine, Europe's largest territorial state after Russia, is once again governed by the Soviet apparatchik, autocrat and election rigger Yanukovych, a convicted felon and the very man who they had sent packing years ago. Seldom has a revolution devoured its children so completely and spat them out again as cynics. This development has also engulfed the heroes of the Orange Revolution, who are no longer capable of sparking the fires of political passion. Ukraine has the blues -- and not even the fact that the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship will culminate in a celebration of the beautiful game in Kiev's Olympic Stadium seems enough to cheer up anyone anymore.
These days, only eight percent of the population believes that the country is heading in the right direction, and only 11 percent of Ukrainians are satisfied with their personal situation. Ukraine, Western Europe's most important transit country for natural gas, has slipped to 134th place on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it in a tie with dictator Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Things are also rapidly going downhill with freedom of the press, which is still one of the most enduring achievements of the revolution. Almost all major newspapers are now controlled by oligarchs, and the director of the intelligence agency pulls the strings at the country's most influential television holding company.
EU: Conviction 'Politically Motivated'
The European Union has sharply criticized the court ruling in Kiev and has characterized the trial against opposition leader Tymoshenko as "politically motivated." A previously negotiated free trade agreement will probably be placed on hold. There was already a sense of outrage at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw in late September in response to a compromise proposal in which Yanukovych suggested that if Tymoshenko were to pay off her $400 million (288 million) "debt" to the government, a law could be retroactively changed so she would no longer be guilty of committing a criminal offense. An EU diplomat told the provocateur from Kiev that this did not at all correspond to "European standards."
Many Ukrainians register such affronts with a mere shrug of the shoulders. They have stopped believing in politicians and, no matter how unfair it may be, they only perceive marginal differences between the three main players who have determined the course of the country since 2004. Ukrainian author Yuri Andrukhovych calls this "an internal occupation." Most Ukrainian intellectuals accuse the triumvirate of power of very consciously betraying the country with its misguided ambition, fits of jealousy and blatant incompetence.
From her prison cell, Tymoshenko speaks of a "mafia" that she says is out to get her, she sees a return to "Stalinism" in Ukraine and, aside from that, she says that she will continue along her own path. She is not allowed to respond to concrete questions from journalists. President Yanukovych strictly declines to comment on the verdict handed down by the court, which he calls "independent." He wants to avoid the impression of a vendetta. It's only possible to discuss the allegation of a joint political failure with one member of the troika -- with Yulia's co-hero from the Orange Revolution -- with the man who, at the height of a hotly contested election campaign in 2004, was the victim of a poison attack that disfigured him and nearly cost him his life: Viktor Yushchenko, 57.
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