The Passion of Yulia Tymoshenko


Judges, in general, are fuckers.
Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine 1994 – January 2005.

I: The Trial

The trial of Yulia Tymoshenko reached a plateau with her arrest for contempt of court in early August. This had been a long time coming, although it was difficult to tell whether the Judge, Tymoshenko or the Ukrainian masses gripped to their TV sets were satisfied or incensed by the course of proceedings. It had also become increasingly difficult to decide who was in control of events, or engineering them. Inside and outside the courtroom a grim media scrum ground out stock imagery of tent cities, government goons and broken eggs. At least part of this was inspirational, and part of it was sinister. But two separate sides were, after all, once more, clearly visible.

Tymoshenko has never been more vulnerable or (consequently) more powerful than she is at this moment, caught between courtroom and cell block. Throughout this vindictive political farce, she has been magnificently disruptive. Dressed in immaculate white with her famous crown of plaits pinned perfectly into place, her physical appearence has been an act of provocation in itself. From day one, she refused to recognise the authority of President Viktor Yanukovych’s annointed Judge, Rodion Kireyev. “I will not stand in front of you,” she declared, “because it would be like kneeling in front of the mafia.” From the dock, she scowled, laughed, hectored, feigned indifference; wielding her iPad, she uploaded scorn and savagery onto a suddenly hyperactive Twitter account. When Judge Kireyev was shown this tumbling satire he was, you might say, peeved, and submitted it as evidence for the prosecution.

From the stalls her supporters punctured the menace and mendacity of her accusers; cries of “shame” and “liar” echoed around the chamber walls. A government militia regularly evicted protestors from the building, where they joined burgeoning pro-Tymoshenko crowds in the square outside. Every day, growing numbers congregated with banners, portraits and loudspeakers, mobile phones, laptops and songs. Access to TV crews, social media and international journalists (notably the peerless RFE/RL team) proved to be a priceless asset in a country still trying to carve out liberated space, still fighting the fate of Belarus and Uzbekistan. A tent city erected by Tymoshenko activists supplied poignant echoes of 2004 and the Orange surge of outrage and optimism that first brought her to power. Finally, after two months of protest and pressure, Yanukovych and Kireyev lost patience and control. By August 8th, Tymoshenko was back in jail for the first time in ten years and the tents outside Pechyorsky Court had been demolished by riot police.

She had no choice, of course. She could not stay quiet. Martyrdom is not her style. Accepting the terms of her trial would only legitimize the charges and those making them. She would be at their mercy and, because the trial has been specifically designed to destroy her, they would be merciless. A strategy of maximum confrontation was her only recourse and, to an extent, it worked: her American and EU supporters were jolted into action by pictures of her being led out of court in chains. The Yanukovych regime is packed with powerful enemies, the same cartel of oligarchs, gangsters, and political henchman she defeated with Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. This is their revenge.

II: Bushchenko & The Gas Princess

Tymoshenko began her political career alongside Yushchenko, working for Leonid Kuchma; for as long as they lasted, they were the only effective and genuine reformers to ever work in his rogue administrations. In office, they directly challenged the political and business clans of Donetsk, an industrial oblast in the East of Ukraine represented by the Party of the Regions. This was the political bloc led by Kuchma and Yanukovych and supported by Putin and Medvedev, who viewed them as a vessel for Russian interests and influence. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko lost their first fight with this faction, with dramatic and far-reaching consequences. Yushchenko was swiftly dispatched into the political wilderness and recast as Bushchenko — the Western stooge with a suspicious Washington wife. However, Tymoshenko paid a heavier price. The Gas Princess from Donetsk, scourge of Gazprom and the Eastern energy oligarchs, was both too close and too hostile to Kuchma to survive. “Yulia must be destroyed,” he blurted out in a conversation recorded in March 2000, “we need a criminal case against her, to put her ass in prison.” Her first incarceration soon followed.

In origin and style, they were kin. She had been a rising star of the Dnipropetrovsk business clan, a minor energy oligarch from the same circles that supplied Kuchma with his closest allies. By declaring war on her, Kuchma transformed Tymoshenko into the most powerful and radical political reformer in the Republic. Eastern by birth, linguistically Russian, she became a leading member of an opposition bloc culturally and organisationally centred on Kiev. Her popular alliance with Yushchenko bore spectacular fruit in the freezing cold winter of 2004, when Ukraine stood at an existential crossroads and half a million Western Ukrainians filled Maidan Nezalezhnosti in defiance of the Donetsk cartel and their Russian fixers. To ride the wave of patriotic redemption and political resistance that she had partly inspired, she turned nationalist, learning to speak Ukrainian and refining her now iconic look: the couture vyshyvanka and halo of braids. It was a spectacular metamorphosis, both for Ukraine and for Tymoshenko.

Now, after the agonising and convoluted break up of the Orange coalition, she is in jail once more; the assailants are slightly different, the personnel shuffled, but the Party of the Regions state machine is intact, active, and intent on finally eliminating her. In fact the trial has been a double revenge. Ukrainians, whether glued to their TV sets or trying hard to avoid the extensive coverage, have witnessed the unsightly spectacle of the two Viktors, themselves sworn enemies, uniting to vanquish a mutual antagonist. Yanukovych is determined to finish her off, everybody knows this. The trial is, among other things, the prospective end of a long and deep political vendetta. This is just business as usual, rational bloodletting. But for the democrats of Ukraine, the appearance of Yushchenko as a witness for the prosecution has been a horror show.

Yushchenko’s testimony cut to the heart of the case against Tymoshenko, his allegations concerning the gas deal she brokered with Putin and Gazprom to end the 2009 gas war. Ukraine had been left without heating in the middle of a subzero December because of the dispute; at the time, Tymoshenko’s diplomatic deal was greeted with relief and applause by a grateful, cold nation. But in Yushchenko’s version of events, her negotiating tactics led to disaster, inadvertently committing Ukraine to ruinously high payments after Putin had offered her a deal for half the price finally agreed. “There was a complete breakdown in negotiations,” he claimed; the final deal “was a knife in the back”. His performance was met with contempt by Tymoshenko. “Let God be his judge,”she hissed, as Yushchenko’s Mercedes sped away from the centre of Kiev, pelted with eggs, to cries of “traitor”. The final collapse of the Orange compact was bitter and definitive.

For his part, Yanukovych has more in mind than mere vengeance; he seeks to outlaw her gas deal in Ukraine’s highest court. But, against a backdrop of increasing tension with Russia and personal animosity with Putin, the political cost is high. Their relationship disintegrated in the period after the 2004 election, when Putin had backed Yanukovych to the hilt and dispatched the Kremlin’s fabled “political technologists” to run his campaign and fix the voting rounds. In return for this assistance, Yanukovych agreed to tilt Ukraine back towards Russia, promising to raise the status of the Russian language and extend the lease for the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean naval base. Last year, desperate to soften Putin and renegotiate the gas deal, Yanukovych extended the lease for 20 years. This won him a meagre discount, but no more.

The Russian Fleet is a highly emotive issue, a permanent challenge to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia, for instance, sent warships from the Crimea to attack Georgia in August 2008, implicating Ukraine in a war it did not support or otherwise participate in. Ratification of the lease extension led to a furious brawl in the Rada; eggs, smoke bombs and wild punches were thrown around the parliamentary chamber. Tymoshenko led the charge against this betrayal of the national interest: “I don’t want to see our country fall under authoritarianism and controlled democracy,” she thundered from the floor of the Rada, adding with appropriate melodrama: “at stake is the future of Europe and the region.” (At stake, also, was the territorial boundary of Ukraine, as Crimean separatists felt encouraged to intensify their campaign for unification with Russia.) Her intervention was a pure expression of her style: audacious, definitive, rash, and tinged with hypocrisy. It was to be one of her last flourishes as a free woman and democratic politician; the gangsters from the Eastern oblasts were running things once more, and they had plans for her.

III: Mona Yulia

In captivity Tymoshenko’s health quickly and visibly deteriorated; led into court, she looked drained, physically frail, prematurely aged. “Bruises from broken blood vessels have appeared all over her body,” wrote her faithful deputy Oleksandr Turchynov, “her life is in danger.” In an urgent and dramatic statement to the court, Tymoshenko’s defense lawyer requested an independent medical examination and blood tests, but the appeal was dismissed by Kireyev — with suspicious force, some felt. Their paranoia was not unfounded; taking their cue from Russian secret service agents and election fixers, Yanukovych, Kuchma and their rogue SBU agents had tried to kill opponents before, sometimes successfully. Before the 2004 election, Yushchenko was fed lethal doses of dioxin at a secret dinner in the dacha of the deputy head of the SBU; luckily, he vomited most of the poison on the way home, but his face was left half-paralysed and permanently disfigured. He was fortunate to live; around the same time, the Kremlin’s enemies were being picked off with toxic chemicals and radioactive particles all over the post-Soviet sphere, and even in Western capitals.

But Tymoshenko — being no fool, as Kuchma correctly noted — knows that she no longer has to fear the Kremlin. Putin and Medvedev do not back Yanukovych with the old ruthless conviction because they are implicated in her plight now. It is not in their interest to see her ruined by this particular gas deal. She also knows, after Yushchenko and Litvinenko, what political damage has been caused by the botched assassination attempts of shady secret service agents. There are other factors in her favour too: Kuchma isolated Ukraine from the international community after the assassination of Hryhorii Gongadze in 2000 and the sale of radar equipment to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war. After the Orange Revolution, with Russia pushing oil and gas levers at either end of his energy-less country, Yanukovych cannot make his mentor’s mistakes. Ironically, both for his political party and for the Donetsk mafia behind it, he can no longer afford to alienate the EU or rely on Russia.

How much do they fear and loath Yulia Tymoshenko? Her passion and provocation has driven them beyond rational politics already; this in a country with a notoriously irrational and corrupt political culture, where even angels are oligarchs and legality merely a matter of taste or expedience. Tymoshenko has her own shady secrets, an impure past that, in another country or a different political climate, she would be expected to account and atone for.

But in Ukraine, in 2011, she is the last standing dissentient to the dictatorship of Donetsk. Unlike Yushchenko, she won’t concede or compromise. She is not a coward, and in some things she is not corruptible. She understands her enemies, their tactics and mentality, from the inside, out; Kuchma knew this all along and Yanukovych has learnt it. She was the lodestar of opposition to their mafia state. She, alone, could pursue liberalisation with ruthless force and telegenic glamour, a uniquely dangerous combination that almost destroyed them twice.

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