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.
'I Don't See a Show Trial'
Yushchenko received the SPIEGEL reporter in the chambers dedicated to his foundation. It resembles a local museum. The walls are decorated with kitschy paintings of idyllic Ukrainian peasant life interspersed with portraits of historic national heroes. The "national" aspect is obviously a matter that is dear to the host's heart. Before him on the table lies a hand-embroidered tablecloth with a fringe of cords, which he absentmindedly weaves during the interview, creating braid after braid -- one miniature Yulia after the other.
The former president says that his health is better these days. But he adds that there is no medical doubt about what happened to him during the 2004 election: It was a deliberate dioxin poisoning -- and the suspects left a trail that leads to Russia. Yet in spite of providing precise information on the individuals in question, he continues, Russia has not responded to his request for extraditions. He has undergone 36 operations, says Yushchenko, whose face is mostly healed, but he has always done this discretely, on weekends. No office hours were sacrificed for this. "Yulia, on the other hand, used the very first day, when I appointed her prime minister, for long photo sessions at the ice rink."
He's the workhorse, she's the showgirl: Yushchenko promptly sets this straight.
The truth is that they both worked hard following their joint victory in 2005 -- but more against each other than for their country. Yushchenko -- a teacher's son, an economist and an antique collector who is known to have stated "I hate politics" before -- looked more to the past than to the present, right from the beginning of his term in office.
"In the 20th century, Ukraine declared its independence six times and lost it again five times. For us, the loss of sovereignty is more than a theoretical threat," says Yushchenko. He had monuments erected and strove for reconciliation among the regions of the country, which have so little in common: western Ukraine, with its imperial Baroque cities, and the gray Donets Basin coal mining region in the east. Yushchenko's solution was a strictly anti-Moscow course and rapid accession to NATO. When he noticed that Tymoshenko was using her position as prime minister to thwart this course, and was not adverse to a cautious rapprochement with Moscow, it became a race to see who could more rapidly hoist the largest number of close friends into important positions.
Before long, neither of them shied away from the ultimate betrayal: secretly making contact with Yanukovych, the arch enemy. The former president is not in the habit of engaging in self-criticism. He blames Yulia alone for the collapse of the partnership: "Maintaining power became an end in itself for her. Delegates in my parliamentary party group were bought so she could secure her position," he claims.
The truth of the matter is that Tymoshenko was never the saint that she stylized herself to be. The business IT specialist always fought with no holds barred, and she became a millionaire entrepreneur in the energy sector as the " gas princess," in part thanks to her skilled interpretation of laws, including deals with dubious oligarchs. Tymoshenko even spent time behind bars before she became a leading figure in the Orange Revolution. She was remanded in custody for 42 days in 2001 on allegations of forgery and smuggling, but was released at the time due to a lack of evidence.
'A Normal Judicial Process'
What does Yushchenko say about the recent trial against his former running mate? Putting aside for a moment all points of criticism, all accumulated differences and all the pent-up anger and frustration, shouldn't he feel a sense of solidarity with her and sharply criticize this shameful show trial as his friends in the West have done?
"I don't see a show trial, but rather a normal judicial process. Even politicians are not above the law. Wasn't former French President Jacques Chirac also forced to stand trial?" he asks.
Yushchenko, who has so often been accused of wavering on his decisions, cannot be deterred from his opinion. He says there was nothing wrong with the proceedings against Yulia Tymoshenko. Even when his attention was drawn to the fact that no one can claim that the former prime minister made personal financial gains from the agreement, it's still not enough to shake his conviction that she committed criminal acts. "What happened in late 2008 was a tragedy for Ukraine and a victory for Russia!" he shouts excitedly.
Now red in the face, he sketches a number of figures on a piece of paper. He says that he is sure that he could have forced the Russians to lower their prices of energy supplies to Ukraine, but in mid-January 2009, the prime minister independently took it upon herself to travel to Moscow to negotiate an overnight deal there. He says that he subsequently asked her on four occasions in Kiev what price she had agreed to. Four times she merely said: "A good one." When he later discovered that Ukraine was paying more than what most Western European countries were charged per cubic meter of natural gas, he was flabbergasted.
"I am convinced that Yulia only signed because she was to receive a significant price reduction for a specific period of time in which the elections were to take place. With her pockets full and the certainty that she had resolved a dispute, she was able to go out and woo the voters," says Yushchenko.
The presidential election in January 2010 was a disaster for Yushchenko. He finished only in fifth place, with around 5.4 percent of the vote. This is the worst result ever achieved by an incumbent in free elections. Tymoshenko and Yanukovych battled it out for first place. In the runoff, Yulia barely lost out, but later claimed -- admittedly without any sound evidence -- that her rival had rigged the election again. "She simply miscalculated," says the humiliated former president, Yushchenko, not without a sense of satisfaction.
Kiev at a Crossroads
Over the past 19 months, Yanukovych, the hardliner who runs the country -- and is known for having said, "I have never stooped to matching myself against a woman engaged in political chatter" -- has done everything in his power to eliminate his rival. Although his relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin has deteriorated and Yanukovych likes to act the pro-European, his actions are actually leading Ukraine back east -- and he seems to be attempting to navigate an extremely risky extortionate middle course.
Kiev is at a crossroads: Either Ukraine returns to a course toward greater transparency and the rule of law, and earns the EU Association Agreement with ties to a free Europe, or it succumbs to the lure of the Kremlin leadership and forms, as Putin has proposed, a customs union together with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This might result in the country paying lower gas prices than it does today, but it would also mean that Ukraine would again fall under the control of Moscow.
Since Yanukovych wants to keep all his options open, he will probably suggest behind the scenes that Yulia's trial be reevaluated. He could use his presidential powers to reduce her sentence to a fine -- a compromise that Tymoshenko won't accept, at least according to Ivan Kirilenko, the parliamentary group leader of her party. If she had a criminal record, her civil rights would be curtailed and she couldn't run in the next election. Another possibility: At the request of the president, the judiciary finds a procedural error and the verdict is repealed over the coming days, without a long appeal hearing -- which is the solution EU officials in Brussels are hoping to see.
And what of Yushchenko, that tragically failed, bitter hero, who can no longer make any reasonable distinctions when it comes to Yulia Tymoshenko because he is so consumed with hate?
He plans in any case to run again in the next election as the top candidate of his small party, as he told SPIEGEL. Opinion polls give him under 5 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Is he a masochist, a true successor to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who was born in the western Ukrainian town of Lviv and gave his name to those who are impassioned with pain?
Yushchenko forces a smile. "I am a politician," he says during the interview, as he twists the last -- probably the 20th -- tablecloth fringe into a braid, "I have to run again, I just have to."
When he testified last August at the trial of his eternal rival, there was a memorable confrontation. The judge, who the defendant consistently called "a puppet" of the president, showed himself to be surprisingly accommodating after the particularly negative testimony of Yushchenko, her former comrade-in-arms, and he asked Yulia Tymoshenko if she also had any questions for the witness. "No," said the defendant, now no longer in the role of Maggie or Evita, but a modern-day Joan of Arc, ready for the fire. "I wouldn't want to destroy the last illusion of our Orange Revolution."
They didn't deign to look at each other again. This is the dream couple in a Ukrainian version of Danny DeVito's "The War of the Roses": In the final scene, amidst their ruined relationship and shards of broken glass, Ukraine is the real loser.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen