It seems hard to believe that a normal person who claims to "hardly ever go to bed before 4 a.m. these days" could look so good. Her cheeks are glowing, her skin is smooth, her trademark braids are carefully arranged on top of her head and her step is as energetic as ever.
But what exactly is normal about this woman, the prime minister of Europe's largest country by area? On this morning, Yulia Tymoshenko looks fresh and awake, wearing a light-brown wool dress and looking the part of the concerned leader of her nation. All that's missing are the sheaves of grain Tymoshenko is holding to her chest on the campaign posters displayed outside, along Kiev's streets.
The venue was probably chosen carefully to ensure just the right backdrop for the candidate. The washed-out white marble and bronze chandeliers in this retirement home for government officials exude the faded charm of the Soviet era. Tymoshenko -- popularly known by her first name, Yulia -- is a study in political contrasts, even before she opens her mouth to give a campaign speech.
"I am one of you," she calls out to the 300 students sitting in the conference room. "I will make sure that you get discounted tickets for the bus and subway! And when I am president, you will be allowed to choose the minister of youth and sports."
Tymoshenko is a gifted speaker, promising a glowing future to the poor and underprivileged, and everything short of saving the planet to everyone else. "We Ukrainians," she says in her clear, youthful voice, "will not just solve our own problems, but will also offer the entire world a model for overcoming the crisis -- that is our mission." She neglects to mention how, exactly, her country will serve as an economic role model.
Icon of Revolution
Ukraine will elect its new president on Jan. 17, for the first time since the Orange Revolution. For a long time, it had seemed as if the presidency were already reserved for Tymoshenko, the icon of the country's magnificent popular revolt of December 2004.
The images the world witnessed coming from Kiev five years ago are hard to forget. The smoke from burning firewood hanging over Khreshchatyk Street, the city's main boulevard, where tens of thousands protested for weeks against fraud in the November election. The parades of honking cars in the city's narrow, twisted downtown streets. The hoarse voices of supporters calling out the names "Yushchenko" and "Yulia" on Independence Square as the opposition leaders, wearing orange scarves, finally claimed victory over the pro-Moscow incumbents after a third round of voting.
The images were reminiscent of Prague in 1968, Gdansk in 1980 and Leipzig in 1989. Russia, which had never overcome the loss of Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, was in shock. Europe, on the other hand, was filled with optimism.
Five years later, Ukraine is almost a forgotten country. The victors of that 2004 election, once feted on Independence Square, are now deeply divided, and the country's political institutions are paralyzed. The government has lacked a majority in the parliament for a year, the posts of finance and defense minister are vacant, and even the Foreign Ministry was leaderless for several months. The country itself is broke, only managing to stay afloat with loans from the West.
And the color orange? It isn't even being used in the current election campaign. The Tymoshenko campaign's white tents decorated with a red heart can be seen on the streets. There are blue tents where volunteers are collecting signatures for former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the man who almost became president as a result of the rigged 2004 election. Finally, current President Viktor Yushchenko is campaigning with brightly colored billboards advertising the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, which Ukraine is co-hosting along with Poland.
Nothing illustrates the stalemate in Ukrainian politics as effectively as the struggle among these three figures. For years, they have formed a seemingly eternal triangle of power, which Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych calls the "anti-Pantheon of the modern era."
'I Hate Politics'
First, there is the 55-year-old Yushchenko, who rose to the country's top position as a result of the revolution. The current president is the son of a village teacher and enjoys collecting antiques. Yushchenko, who once said: "I hate politics," managed to restore Ukrainians' sense of national identity but turned out to be a weak leader. Ignoring the real concerns of his people, he has declared the election to be a referendum on Ukraine's pro-Western course. This time around, he is unlikely to capture more than 5 percent of votes, with polls indicating that 70 percent of Ukrainians long for a "strong leader with a strong hand."
Then there is the 49-year-old Tymoshenko, a former businesswoman who is now a full-blooded politician with a reputation for ruthlessness. Yushchenko has even accused Tymoshenko of trying to seize the presidency through a putsch in order to install herself as an authoritarian leader. A year ago, she was already confident of winning the presidency. But then the financial crisis began, rattling the people's confidence in her ability to govern. The economy shrank by about 14 percent, while the average monthly income declined to the equivalent of €160 ($233).
For months, the prime minister has been preoccupied with trying to acquire capital from abroad so that the country can pay its Russian gas bills. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) halted a $16 billion loan because Tymoshenko ordered an increase in pensions and the minimum wage, despite a massive budget deficit. Then came the swine flu epidemic, putting a stop to her elaborate campaign tour.
Rising Through the Ranks
Finally, there is the 59-year-old Yanukovych, the son of a metalworker from the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, who was sentenced to prison for robbery and assault when he was a teenager. He later became a racecar driver and, after rising through the political ranks, was eventually appointed to the post of prime minister under semi-authoritarian former President Leonid Kuchma.
Today, he argues for the return of "law and order" and claims that the price of democracy in the wake of the Orange Revolution was too high. His Party of Regions has attracted almost the entire communist electorate and large segments of the Russophile population. It is also a hotbed of protests against market reforms and the country's pro-Western orientation.
Yanukovych, a man completely lacking in charisma, simply had to wait until the orange revolutionaries destroyed each other. According to the polls, he is leading with 30 percent, 10 percentage points ahead of Tymoshenko.
Ironically, the man behind the election fraud of 2004 could become the country's next democratically elected president. Was the Orange Revolution merely a bluff, and is Ukraine lost to Europe once again?
All or Nothing
Savik Shuster greets his audience of millions on his nightly talk show. His show "Shuster Live," broadcast on TRK-Ukraine from a studio housed in a renovated factory building, is the country's most popular program, partly because of its no-holds-barred format. His critics call it a "striptease of politics."
Shuster's assistant, a long-legged platinum blonde wearing a black blouse with shoulder pads made to look like soccer balls, announces that, once again, it's all or nothing for Ukraine. "The 2012 UEFA European Football Championship is our last chance to show that we are a European country," she says.
Then Shuster introduces his guests, the Ukrainian sports minister and two football officials versus three critics of the government. The topic is Ukraine's biggest problem: corruption. Shuster claims that a company owned by the minister's former deputy was awarded major stadium construction contracts.
The sports minister, a very young disciple of Yushchenko, rejects the charges while injecting a dose of nationalism. "UEFA tried to force us to award the stadium construction contracts to German and other foreign companies," he says, "but I wanted to make sure that Ukrainian taxpayers' money went to Ukrainian companies." The audience applauds.
A debate ensues that, in its openness and candidness, would not be possible in most of the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union today, including Russia. Shuster, who once lived in Moscow, says that he went to Ukraine because the Russian capital is still a place where "propagandists and not journalists are in demand."
The show highlights one of the positive sides of the Orange Revolution. Since 2005, the country has had both open political debate and freedom of the press. However, says Shuster, this freedom has also enabled the country's oligarchs to gain control over broadcasters and newspapers. For example, the eastern Ukrainian steel and coal magnate Rinat Akhmetov owns TRK, while Kuchma's billionaire son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, owns four television channels. One interesting new development is that each of these media tycoons has now divided his political sympathies among various camps.
The next evening's show reveals something about Ukrainian culture. Shuster has invited five of the 18 presidential candidates and a number of political scientists to discuss the scandal of the week. President Yushchenko reprimanded the interior minister and the head of the intelligence agency on live TV, saying: "Do you know why we can't defeat corruption? Because you yourselves are corrupt."
Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, is sitting in the studio. Although it is not revealed whether the president's accusations of corruption have any substance, it is true that Lutsenko, who is in charge of more than 350,000 police officers and civil servants, was barred from boarding a flight at a German airport last year for drunkenness and vulgar behavior.
"How can you be a role model for our public servants? You should resign," says one of the guests, a member of parliament for Yanukovych's party.
"And you?" Lutsenko retorts sharply. "I happen to know that you beat your wife at home." The accusation later leads to a scuffle in the studio between the two men.
Shuster complains that the problem with the new freedom of the press is that the media have lost all relevance. "The people can now speak up, but the politicians aren't listening."
Living in a Feudal Oligarchy
"We Ukrainians don't love ourselves, and we don't respect ourselves," says Mikhail Brodsky; who is running for president once again. "We traditionally eat bacon in the morning, but we don't know that it's unhealthy, and we don't even live to the age of 70. And many of us still don't even want to work hard."
Brodsky, a bald 50-year-old, is Ukraine's mattress king, one of the country's minor magnates who, together with his son, owns 200 retail stores nationwide and an Internet site. He once owned a bank, which got him into difficulties, as well as the Kievskiye Vedomosti, a well-known newspaper. But he was forced out of the newspaper business by people who were more powerful than him.
Brodksy is sitting in the Kalina pastry shop, across the street from the Arsenal, a former weapons factory in Kiev, which he also owns. He says he is worried about the fusion of business and politics, a development that stands in the way of real reform.
"We have put the totalitarian regime behind us, as well as the post-totalitarian regime, and now we live in a feudal oligarchy," says Brodsky. He wants to see all those brought to justice who have amassed vast fortunes in recent years but are unable to account for the source of their wealth. Four hundred of the 450 members of the Ukrainian parliament are said to be millionaires.
"I think we should put the thieves to the acid test," says the mattress king. Unfortunately, he adds, the worst crooks of the post-Soviet era have fled abroad. One of them is the former head of the oil and gas company Naftogaz. According to Brodsky, an international warrant was issued for the man's arrest, but he now has a Russian passport and lives in Moscow. It isn't surprising that the economy isn't improving, he says, when there is so little security for investors.
In fact, foreign direct investment grew fivefold after the Orange Revolution, but now more than $30 billion of that foreign capital has been pulled out of the country again. Ukrainian exports to the United States declined by 90 percent last year.
Brodsky is a living example of how quickly political loyalties change within the Ukrainian elite. He once supported Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, but he has since turned away from the two politicians, particularly the prime minister, because she "has brought the old Kuchma cronies into her team, sells off slots on her register of voters and bribes judges on the constitutional court."
Brodsky has formed his own party, called the Free Democrats, which has about 1,000 members, a modest number that is reflected in his showing in the polls. According to the latest figures, 0.87 percent of Ukrainians would vote for him as president. This doesn't trouble him, however. In the 2004 election, he was referred to as a "count candidate," a term used to describe those who sell their votes to one of the two leading candidates in the important runoff election.
He did it for Yushchenko in 2004. Does he have a deal with Yanukovych this time, or perhaps even with Tymoshenko? Brodsky smiles -- and says nothing.
The Last Territory
Ivano-Frankivsk, formerly Stanyslaviv, is a city in the region once known as Galicia. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for almost 150 years. Then it was a Polish city with a large Jewish population. Although it was eventually named after the Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko, Stanyslaviv's churches and old houses still convey an air of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Nowhere are Ukraine's ties to Europe stronger than here, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Stanyslaviv is also the home of Yuri Andrukhovych, one of Ukraine's most renowned writers.
It is a cold Saturday morning in the city. A red-nosed Andrukhovych, 49, arrives wearing a red scarf and a red knit cap. He looks a little worse for the wear. The evening before, he read from his book "The Last Territory" to a packed audience at the philharmonic in the nearby city of Lviv.
Andrukhovych uses the term "last territory" to refer to his native country on the eastern edge of the continent, a region that Europeans have almost forgotten, now that Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have all joined the European Union. Oddly enough, the geographic center of Europe is only 100 kilometers from Stanyslaviv.
But Stanyslaviv and Ukraine are a no-man's land today, wedged between the border to the Schengen zone and Russia. Andrukhovych, who knows Berlin and Vienna almost as well as he does Stanyslaviv, tries in his writing to prevent Ukraine from being forgotten again.
It isn't a task that has become any easier over the years. Ukraine, at least in its current form, "won't do Europe any good," he says. "We've missed our opportunity, for now."
Andrukhovych is among those who struggled in support of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Today he sees Yushchenko as nothing but a notorious opportunist. When asked about Yanukovych, he says that he didn't expect anything of him then and still expects nothing of him today. But his greatest disappointment is Tymoshenko. "She's an actress," he says, "but a bad one. How can such a bad actress be so successful? She is the biggest populist, constantly promising people that she wants to give something back."
Andrukhovych is the first to admit that he saw the country's 1991 independence and Yushchenko's 2004 election victory as "political miracles." But, he adds, one should not forget that the election five years ago was basically a neck-and-neck race, and that Yushchenko barely managed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote in the important runoff election. It was only half a revolution, he says, and predicts that now the scales will tip to the other half. "We are back in the mid-1990s, and we will have a new Kuchma. It's no surprise that the West doesn't trust us."
Andrukhovych, who has an engaging and cheerful manner, doesn't sound bitter. Perhaps all of this will be useful, he says. "If Yanukovych wins, maybe people will realize the importance of freedom."
Ivano-Frankivsk has benefited from the Orange Revolution. The city's downtown has been carefully renovated, and its historic buildings, including the Jesuit college, the cathedral, the synagogue and the town hall, as well as many of the Art Nouveau villas, are in good shape. There has been much new construction throughout the city since 2004. And when it comes to quality of life, the city, which has a population of over 200,000, is doing very well by Ukrainian standards. But the construction cranes have been idle in Stanyslaviv since Ukraine got hit by the economic downturn, which affected the country worse than almost any other in Europe.
Nevertheless, Andrukhovych remains optimistic. Some of the consequences of the Orange Revolution are irreversible, he says. For example, the border, at least to the West, is now open. The birth rate is rising again and, most importantly, Ukraine has acquired its own identity. The gray post-Soviet era, the shaved heads, the tracksuits -- all of that, with the exception of Russian pop music, is on its way out, says Andrukhovych. "The country has rediscovered its individuality."
For Andrukhovych, perhaps the most eye-opening experience was something he recently witnessed in Donetsk, a mining city in the far eastern part of the country, as foreign to a western Ukrainian as Shanghai or Cairo. Donetsk is Yanukovych country and is dominated by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Andrukhovych was in the city with the rock group Dead Rooster, which was premiering its new album "Made in Ukraine," with songs based on his poems. The poet even sang one of the songs himself. The club was full of young people, Russian-speaking Andrukhovych fans who even knew the poems of a western Ukrainian by heart. "Ukraine is alive," says Andrukhovych.