Ukrainian Presidential Election Yulia Tymoshenko Attempts a Comeback

Yulia Tymoshenko was once Europe's best-known political prisoner. Now, five years after the revolution in Ukraine, she is hoping to win the country's presidential election. Is she too rooted in the old system to win?

DPA

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Yulia Tymoshenko scares people, and she knows it. In early February, the Ukrainian politician spoke to European business representatives in Kiev. She was clad in a gray outfit with her hair tied up in a bun, as she prefers wearing it these days. Addressing the audience for a full hour, she explained why she wants to become president of Ukraine. She spoke about her plans to amend the constitution and touched on issues such as taxes, real estate and foreign policy. At the end of the meeting, Tymoshenko took the floor again to make a couple of additional points. First, she said, I don't eat small children. Second, I don't act illogically.

The comments were meant to be ironic, and to calm people's fears. Ever since Tymoshenko has been involved in Ukrainian politics -- and her career began over two decades ago -- she has spoken with the fervent voice of a revolutionary proclaiming the final battle. It's a tone that frightens many. But Ukraine currently has little need for new revolutions. It has only been five years since the last one, when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office. Street protests and a bloodbath in downtown Kiev were the price that Ukrainians had to pay. They had high hopes that by toppling their corrupt president they could rid themselves of the entire corrupt system.

But the presidential election campaign currently underway in Ukraine shows that the old system is far from defeated. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, is hoping for re-election on March 31, but he has managed to lose the trust that voters placed in him in 2014. In a moment of crisis, when the Russians had just annexed the Crimean Peninsula and instigated a war in the Donbass region, the billionaire was elected with an overwhelming majority. But Poroshenko turned out to be a reluctant reformer, and a politician who can't stop being a businessman at the same time.

He is facing off against no fewer than 43 candidates, yet most of them lack either serious intentions or the requisite professional expertise. Currently leading in the polls is Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV comedian who is promoting the latest season of his popular series, "Servant of the People," in which he plays a high-school teacher who is elected president of Ukraine. Then there's the backbencher, Yuriy Tymoshenko, who was only chosen in the hopes that his name's similarity to that of Yulia Tymoshenko will be enough to confuse people in the voting booth. And then there is the man who is more emblematic of the failure of the 2014 revolution than anyone else: Roman Nasirov, once the highest-ranking tax official in Ukraine who was dragged into court by the country's new anti-corruption agency. In vain, as his candidacy shows.

Ukrainian politics is once again what it was before the revolution -- an entertaining circus with garish performers. Perhaps Yulia Tymoshenko is an ideal symbol for this return to the status quo: a politician who calls for the overthrow of the system, yet remains a permanent fixture within it; a revolutionary who belongs to the discredited elite; a woman who has been in politics longer than the young demonstrators on the Maidan can even remember.

'Glory to Ukraine!'

In December, she appeared to be the undisputed frontrunner. But now that Zelensky has outdistanced both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko in the opinion polls, the race is wide open again. And the tighter the race seems, the more radical her rhetoric becomes.

On the day after her meeting with European investors in Kiev, Tymoshenko kicked off her election campaign in Dnipro, an industrial city on the Dnieper. A stage was erected down by the river. Thin ice was floating on the water and the city was shrouded in fog on this bitterly cold evening, but a few thousand people still turned out for the event.

Several supporters admitted they were hoping to receive 100 hryvnia -- roughly 3.20 euros -- as compensation for showing up. Indeed, that explains the frantic jostling at the entrance to the rally where people were busily affixing their signatures to a petition, ostensibly in favor of a 50 percent reduction in the price of natural gas, Tymoshenko's most popular demand. But those who presented their identification papers the next day would allegedly receive cash. That's simply how Ukrainian politics works -- and not just at Tymoshenko's rallies.

Dnipro is Tymoshenko's hometown. She was born here 58 years ago, back when the city was still called Dnipropetrovsk. It was here that she began her career as a businesswoman, first with a modest video-rental shop, later making billions in the energy trade, earning her the sobriquet of "gas princess."

"Glory to Ukraine! Glory to my hometown of Dnipro!" Tymoshenko shouted as she stepped onto the stage on the banks of the Dnieper. She spoke about her love for this city, for her mother and for her husband. That was one side of Yulia -- the woman whose party uses a red heart as its logo. But then the other Yulia quickly emerged, the one who embodies the people's anger with their government. She condemned the health-care reform as an "experiment on the Ukrainian people" organized by foreigners -- a populist jab at Health Minister Ulana Suprun, who was born in the United States.

Speaking to a small group of local journalists after the rally, she hoarsely said the health reform aimed to "eradicate the Ukrainians," adding that "only the enemies of Ukraine" could come up with something like this. She went on to say that the government's current policies aim to "systematically depopulate" Ukraine: "They intend to remove us from our own country!" She also contended that the exchange rate was kept artificially low. And, she added bitterly, Ukrainian was no longer heard in the corridors of the national bank, having been entirely replaced by English.

Portraying the health-care reform as an attempt at genocide, and her political opponents as enemies of the people -- is this just campaign rhetoric or does she really mean it? "She truly believes this," says a political expert in Kiev who knows her, but wishes to remain anonymous, "and that's very dangerous."

Political Prisoner

Tymoshenko is a populist, a woman who is uncompromising and radical -- qualities that appeal to her supporters. "They tend to live in small towns, not cities; tend to be old, rather than young; tend to be poor, not wealthy," says Tymoshenko's media consultant Oleksiy Mustafin. But she terrifies the elite, which may have cost her the election in 2010, when she ran against Viktor Yanukovych, the representative of the Donetsk clan.

"The majority of the oligarchs supported Yanukovych at the time," says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political scientist, adding: "They were afraid Tymoshenko was more authoritarian, more uncompromising. Later, they regretted their choice." Fesenko says that there is no longer a consensus among the oligarchs. One of them, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, reportedly even ranks among her sponsors.

In 2010, Tymoshenko only narrowly lost the election, but she paid a high price for her defeat. An unfavorable natural gas deal that she had negotiated with the Russians as prime minister in 2009 served as the pretext for putting her behind bars, where she spent two-and-a-half years. Tymoshenko became Europe's most prominent political prisoner.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych's American political consultant, Paul Manafort, was working behind the scenes to smear Tymoshenko's reputation in the West. "My goal is to plant some stink on Tymo," as he put it. Such details came to light as a result of the investigation into Manafort by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller's team.

One might have thought that Yanukovych's ouster in 2014 would have been a boost for Tymoshenko, since she was his most prominent victim. But that's not how it played out. On Feb. 21, the president fled the capital, and the next day Tymoshenko spoke on Kiev's Independence Square. But instead of a victor, people saw a woman in a wheelchair who struggled to maintain her composure and misread the mood of the crowd she was addressing.

It was others who ultimately benefited from the revolution, primarily Poroshenko, who defeated her in a landslide victory in the presidential election. Her "Fatherland" party became the smallest faction in the legislative body after the parliamentary elections that fall. Friends and allies abandoned her.

Hryhoriy Nemyria, her long-time comrade-in-arms and foreign policy adviser, witnessed the betrayal firsthand. On Feb. 22, 2014, he stood behind Tymoshenko's wheelchair on the stage and he was also one of the few who had visited her in prison before. He says the party leadership would always visit her in a group of three and that they would whisper into each other's ears and rattle Yulia's wooden pencil case so the guard couldn't hear what they were saying.

"Now, I'm the only one of that trio who's remained with Yulia," he says. The other two founded their own party and supported Poroshenko.

A Combination of New and Old

The current president was elected after making grand campaign promises. Poroshenko pledged to end the war in the east within two weeks, combat corruption and sell off his business empire. But the war dragged on, corruption continues to flourish and Poroshenko remains a businessman. Ukraine has become Europe's poorest country; its currency has lost half its value.

Poroshenko can't be blamed for all of this. Compared to his predecessors, he's not a bad president, especially when it comes to international diplomacy. Indeed, he is perhaps the best the old system could have produced. But voters didn't want the best of the old -- they wanted something new.

The Tymoshenko who is running for office in 2019 is, in a certain sense, both old and new. Nemyria says she evolved while she was in prison: "Now she thinks much more strategically."

Nearly a year before the election, she began to hold large forums, with debates focusing on constitutional questions, security issues and social policies. She now has a comprehensive election platform, which is unusual in Ukraine. She wants to completely revamp the current political system, in which a strong president and a strong parliament constantly obstruct each other. She likes to speak of a "Kanzlerrepublik" that she intends to implement even before the parliamentary elections in October. The German word, meaning "Chancellor republic," is meant to bring to mind stability and a strong woman.

She has even published a 400-page economic strategy paper in which she takes aim at the country's central bank. She now has a plan for everything imaginable, but she's not about to abandon the old ideas. Above all, she remains committed to natural gas subsidies, a position that's popular among voters and highly unpopular with the International Monetary Fund, which provides a financial lifeline to Ukraine.

That strategy, Poroshenko has warned, is "not the path to Brussels, but rather to Caracas," and he has compared Tymoshenko with Chávez and Maduro. Poroshenko himself is playing the patriotism card in this election campaign, presenting himself as the commander-in-chief, even declaring martial law for a month in some regions. He is also touring the country's cathedrals, where he is celebrated as the co-founder of the new national church, which is independent of Moscow for the first time in 300 years. "Either Poroshenko or Putin" is one of his campaign slogans.

It's as if he intended to win by using the same strategy that's always applied to elections in Ukraine: the polarization between East and West. But in the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution such an approach seems outdated and absurd. Ever since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and seized control of parts of the Donbass, openly pro-Russian politicians no longer have a chance of becoming president. The Ukrainian parliament has recently enshrined the goal of NATO membership in the country's constitution, with 334 lawmakers in favor and only 35 voting against the amendment.

The political spectrum has shifted. Indeed, Tymoshenko, who was once vilified as a pro-Western nationalist, now has to defend herself against allegations that she's not patriotic enough. To underscore her patriotism, she surrounded herself with soldiers during her nomination. "She will hardly change anything in foreign policy," says Fesenko, the political expert.

It remains to be seen whether she will make it through to the second round of voting. The only thing that's certain is that the wealthy Tymoshenko hasn't entered the election fray to become richer.

Freud identified three fundamental drives, she said in Dnipro. "That's money, fame and sex. The first and the third are uninteresting for me personally. For me, what counts is the fame that you earn as a politician." There aren't many politicians in Ukraine who can say that about themselves.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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