With Ukraine on the verge of civil war, Yulia Timoshenko secured a get-out-of-jail-free card, from a very unlikely source. Her rival, Inna Bohoslovska, introduced a bill dismissing corruption charges brought against her in 2011. The revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych gave Yulia an opportunity to return to the national stage, on Saturday evening, at Maidan.
But is this a victory for Ukraine as much as it is for Yulia?
Over the years, as Yulia struggled through successive court appeals, her story lost its media draw. The tent city established by her supporters in protest of her treatment seemed set to remain hidden inside the grounds of the Kharkiv Railway Hospital, where she was being held under the watch of the SBU, Ukraine’s secret police. Yulia had almost faded from view last year, until her icon appeared atop the Euromaidan Christmas tree.
In December 2013, Yulia addressed the public with series of carefully crafted, inspiring speeches on freedom and democracy. After the brutal beating of the activist Tetyana Chornovol, Yulia was one of the first to draw attention to the systematic assault on activists and journalists.
“I want to ask you: do you honestly believe that after her selfless, sacrificial struggle on Maidan against the ruling gang she was randomly beaten by random hooligans, as the official propaganda reports claim?” “If we believe all this,” she continued, “and more importantly, if we forgive them and give up – then we, as a people, are worthy of the serfdom they’re offering us!”
And when Grushevskogo Street lit up in flames, Yulia was there, urging the protestors to go all the way.
Her daughter Eugenia has repeatedly come to Maidan, trembling with frustration over the medical condition of her mother, an issue she has discussed extensively with Western journalists. Although she says she is not interested in politics, for several years now, Eugenia has been her mother’s unofficial spokeswoman and manager. Her mother’s Fatherland Party runs every decision by Eugenia first.
The prospective return of Yulia left government officials grasping at straws. In December 2013, Party of Regions MP Vladimir Oleinik told the BBC, “the European Court hasn’t yet made a decision in the case of Yulia. And by the way, it’s her fault we’re now pressured by Russia and can’t move towards Europe. She was the one to sign the agreement that conditioned Ukraine to keep away from Euro negotiations or else.”
Oleinik’s careful response signaled that everyone understood to many she is still an icon, a Joan of Arc, an Iron Lady, and a now a poster-woman for systemic injustice. Even when most of the initial protest founders saw her return as a hijacking of their movement, her protest camp at Maidan became a shrine. The opposition understood that, and plugged her detention, whenever they could, into the roundtable negotiations and public appearances at Maidan.
MP Inna Bohoslovska understood it too.
The Fatherland Party groused that Inna helped put Yulia in jail in the first place. But three months ago, Inna resigned from President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and began campaigning for his resignation. This week, she introduced a bill to free Yulia, which won more than two-thirds of the votes in the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament.)
Yet casting Yulia as an “icon” of democracy today could be a mistake. Her history is nuanced and ambiguous, and she is as human as any other prospective leader.
In the late 1980s, before she was a politician – the “Orange Princess”, as Dmitri Popov and Ilya Milshetein dubbed her in their eponymous biography – Yulia launched her business career. Her first venture was a string of underground video clubs that showed pirated Hollywood blockbusters. Yulia was among the first wave of post-Soviet entrepreneurs to open shop. The clubs were as popular as other new consumer goods from abroad: cigarettes, soda, and Nutella.
Yulia then turned to bartering computers and household electronics, and large government contracts followed. She expanded her activities further, swapping among other goods surplus Ukrainian weapons for Russian fuel with the new Russian Defense Ministry.
In 1997, Yulia entered politics and made common cause with former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Together, the two formed Gramada, Fatherland’s predecessor party. She entered politics to ward off pressure from both the Kuchma Administration and the Donetsk mafia. Had she not obtained parliamentary immunity, there might have been a trial and a prison sentence.
Her political career was marked by eloquent speeches and several bold policy decisions. Political journalist Sergei Leshenko claims that she allowed relative transparency and media friendliness, and that Yuliya was a lot more open compared to Yanukovych. “During her time in office, journalists were allowed to report on legislation immediately after the decisions were called,” he notes. “In contrast, only four journalists were allowed to attend the press conference held by Yanukovych on December 19th that was meant to explain the ‘nuance’ of the agreement reached with Russia.”
Pressure on Yulia returned in 2010. In 2011, she was sentenced to seven years for exceeding her authority in a gas deal with Russia. She was also accused of the murder of the oligarch Vladimir Sherban. The murder charge did not stick, and the evidence in the gas case was questionable at best. According to Andrey Starostin, a financial analyst with who focuses on corruption and defense news, “the trial was cosmetic, a clear political persecution, everything else remained an open secret”.
But it is more complicated than that.
While Yulia may or may not have exceeded her authority in that gas deal, she certainly did abuse her office, repeatedly, and usually for her own financial gain. This caused a wave of scandals. Yet prosecutors have been reluctant to pursue any such abuses, out of a fear of self-exposure.
Even the most clear-cut corruption case against Yulia (first brought to light by the economist Andrey Novaka) – the collapse of United Energy Systems – never made it anywhere near the 2011 proceedings. Investigating this would have required cracking down on a network of very well-connected insiders.
The second most infamous incident, the 2008 bailout, was also widely publicized and covered by local investigative journalists at the time, but never touched upon by prosecutors. At that time, the exchange rate collapsed from five to eight grivna to the US dollar, so Yulia offer financial aid to several specific banks, such as Brokbusinessbank, at the expense of everyone else. Her handpicked bank owners made a fortune as a result.
The fashion for such scandals was set in motion during the Yushchenko Administration, which birthed a political philosophy called “Люби друзи.” The term, translated as “my dear friends,” has a much broader meaning now, but was frequently used by then-President Yushchenko to open his televised speeches.
Vyacheslav Konovalov, a criminology researcher, explains that “the initial idea behind ‘Dear Friends’ was a transparent system for monitoring public finance in place of the Soviet model. To do so, a system of tenders and a tender chamber were set up. Specially “favored” people with Western degrees were appointed to control the system. Soon enough the initiative produced many thirty year old ministers and deputy ministers, dubbed at the time ‘Kinder Surprises.’” They are an “untouchable tender mafia” presiding over a system where brokers enjoy kickbacks of thirty, fifty, up to seventy percent.
The tenders made it easy for Yulia and her allies to enjoy luxurious lifestyles without actually owning anything on paper. According to court documents, by the end of her trial, the only property they could confiscate from Yulia was a modest apartment in Dnepropetrovsk. But Yulia, as many others political elites in Ukraine spent much of her time in police-protected, luxurious villas.
The Yanukovych family has gone even further on a larger, more grotesque scale. According to the PEP Watch anti-corruption center, the net-worth of Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr has gone from 7 to 510 million UAH since 2010. His dacha in Mezhyhirya, showed off to the public on February 22nd, was a rude awakening. Luxury cars, gilded toilets, a lakeside galleon, and a private zoo were found. Acres and acres of tasteless, overpriced junk that cost millions of dollars.
The opinion on whether Yulia Timoshenko’s tenure in office was criminal or effective differs. But as the crowds gear up for lynching Yanukovych, it might be wise to remember that both more than occasionally relied on offshore schemes for personal benefits and maintaining “friendship” with Russia. The gas deal Yulia cut with Russia isn’t so different from the (since annulled) contract Yanukovych signed with Putin on December 17th.
Yulia lived within the existing system, maneuvering, as did many others in her position. She saw her opportunities and she took them, with one key difference: charisma. And when the system is too deep-rooted to change anything, style (i.e., the extend of your personal greed) is the only thing that matters to people.
On stage with the people, right after a brief visit to the Rada, in a wheel chair, she offered promises of reconciliation in the “New Ukraine.” Yulia has a good shoot at becoming an “Orange Princess 2.0.”
If that happens, let us hope whatever befalls Yanukovych as he and other VIPs run for the airports will serve as a cautionary tale. Those who shared tears for their loved ones with Yulia today are patient only up to a point.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.