Yulia Bravo

Three cheers for Ukraine’s most glamorous politician

Originally published in Harpers & Queen

At 9.46am on January 29th, an armoured Mercedes stopped at a crossroads in Kiev. The driver indicated that he was turning, and the policeman on traffic duty gave the signal to pull out. So the Mercedes moved forward. But then a red Zhiguli, an ancient car made in Russia – heavily laden with goods but travelling at high speed – slammed into the Mercedes, severely injuring the woman in the front seat.

That woman was Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the opposition and absolutely the most glamorous politician in Ukraine – if not the world. Certainly more glamorous than any politician in Britain, where startlingly good looks are generally regarded as incompatible with the lofty business of government. And it wasn’t only for her appearance – dark eyes, long hair – that Tymoshenko, 41, oozed allure. Widely known as hazova princessa (the gas princess), she’d made a fortune in the crooked energy business – enough to put her among the very richest individuals in the former Soviet Union – then gone into politics to clean up the industry. She’d launched a campaign to impeach the president (another nickname is ‘Ukraine’s Joan of Arc’) and in turn found herself imprisoned on charges of corruption; the purpose of that morning’s drive, to Kiev’s court of appeal, was to fight the latest case against her.

According to eyewitnesses, Tymoshenko was badly hurt. She couldn’t move, or speak. She was rushed to the Feofania hospital, a luxurious facility reserved for Ukraine’s elite, where doctors identified numerous chest wounds and an intracranial haemorrhage. Her condition was deemed “unstable”.

Her 21-year-old daughter Yevgeniya – who is equally striking – found out what had happened only some hours later, when her grandmother phoned her in the library of the London School of Economics, where she studies politics. “I thought, ‘Oh my God!’” Yevgeniya tells me, at a café near the LSE on Aldwych. “She said, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry,’ but they always tell me that.” She asked if she should fly home, but her grandmother told her to wait.

A week after the accident, Tymoshenko’s mother issued a statement of thanks to well-wishers: “Because her eyes hurt her very much, Yulia is unable to read your telegrams herself, but she knows about your support.” Ukraine’s most alluring opposition leader was obviously not about to leave hospital – with just two months to go till the all-important March 31 election.

Beset by legal actions restricting her movement, Tymoshenko had only recently been allowed to travel outside Kiev, for the first time in eighteen months. At rallies in western Ukraine she’d substantially raised the level of support for her political coalition. Later that evening, she planned to travel east, to address miners at Donetsk. But the court of appeal, reaching judgement in her absence only hours after the crash, allowed the prosecutor-general to continue his actions against her. So even when she does get out of hospital she won’t be allowed to campaign outside the capital. She may not have it as bad as Aun Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident who spent years under house arrest, but Tymoshenko’s situation is hardly ideal.

It didn’t take long for rumours to spread: perhaps the crash was deliberate. Viktor Yushchenko, the former prime minister to whom she had served as deputy, said: “I’d like to believe that the car crash was an accident, but in Ukraine politicians seem to suffer from them with increasing regularity.” As recently as 29 December, a presidential aide collided with a Zhiguli (whose driver was killed). A member of parliament died in January 2001 after his car spun out of control. Another suffered a fractured pelvis in a car accident in February 2000. And in March 1999 a well known opposition leader was killed when a truck hauling two trailers filled with 11 tons of grain flattened his Toyota on the road to Kiev airport.

What’s more, the driver of the Zhiguli that hit Tymoshenko’s Mercedes, 32-year-old Akif Museibov, had begged to be discharged from hospital, then disappeared – resurfacing later under the protection of the Azeri embassy. Doctors found no trace of alcohol or drugs in his blood, which rules out the obvious explanation for his bad driving.

Of all the countries that threw off communist rule a decade ago, Ukraine – a European country as large as France – has fared less well than most. Despite terrific natural resources, a strategically useful position on the Black Sea, and a hefty portion of the Soviet nuclear weaponry, it has declined towards third-world status. Among ordinary citizens, I found on a recent visit, Soviet habits persist. Catch someone’s eye – on the chestnut-lined streets of Kiev or the art deco underground system – and they’ll quickly look away. Ask if something is permitted and the answer is invariably no. Officials earn a pittance: even the prime minister takes home little more than $450 a month. Corruption is rife: it takes six months and a lot of bribes to set up a business. One of the country’s biggest exports is young women with impossibly high cheekbones: many of them work in the sex industies of western Europe.

But history has taught ordinary Ukrainians not to complain. Stalin, running agricultural policy from Russia in the 1930s, engineered a famine that killed seven million Ukrainians. More than half a million were killed or captured by the Germans, in 1941. And shortly before the Soviet Union finally broke up, the government in Moscow presided over further disaster: Chernobyl. Of 600,000 people assigned to clear up the radioactive mess, nearly 170,000 have died or contracted terminal illness.

Politicians, if they value their lives, cause little trouble. The same goes for journalists. One exception, Gyorgiy Gongadze, was investigating corruption when he disappeared. Who was implicated? None other than president Kuchma: on tapes recorded and leaked by one of Kuchma’s security officers – who has subsequently taken asylum in the US – Kuchma is heard to order somebody to ‘deal with’ Gongadze, whose headless corpse was later found in a wood outside Kiev.

At another point in the tapes, Kuchma complains about insulting caricatures in a newspaper run by one of Tymoshenko’s allies. He tells an aide: “So, you invite Yulia [Tymoshenko] and ask, ‘Dear one, what the fuck are you doing? Do you want us to destroy you completely? Why are you financing [this]?’” He adds, plainly angry with his aide: “Don’t you know how to do your job? They aren’t one fucking bit afraid of you.”

Yulia Tymoshenko was born in 1960 in Dnipropetrovsk, a centre of missile production which was closed to foreigners in the Soviet era; and which produced much of Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite. Her parents were civil servants. She met her husband, Oleksandr, at school. She married him as soon as she turned 18, while still a second year student of economics. The birth of Yevgeniya came soon afterwards, and Yulia started her career as economist at a mechanical engineering plant. Oleksandr was an engineer. Yevgeniya, looking back on her childhood, says: “We were quite poor.”

But the end of communism changed that. Ukraine declared itself independent of Russia in 1991, and Tymoshenko soon found herself in a position to make money, running a small energy trading company. With support from a well connected local politician, Pavlo Lazarenko, she built this into a sizeable business. And the pair continued to work closely together after Lazarenko joined the government in Kiev. In 1996, he became prime minister; Tymoshenko, by then, was president of a much bigger company, United Energy Systems, distributing a mind-boggling 800bn cubic metres of gas each year (enough to supply the whole United Kingdom, at current rates of consumption, for eight years) with annual turnover of some $10bn (as much as, say, ICI).

She acquired expensive western tastes – in make up, perfume and clothes. She rarely wears bright colours, preferring black and white, and never trousers; designers such as Armani and Dolce & Gabbana started to appear in her wardrobe. (She retains a weirdly low-budget beauty regime: following advice from her grandmother, she reveals, she avoids moisturiser and washes only with soap and boiled water.)

Increased wealth also permitted her to send her daughter, Yevgeniya, to be educated in England. First at Rugby, where her friends included the daughters of a Tory peer and the chief executive of Vodafone, Sir Christopher Gent. Then at the LSE – where the only reds, these days, are the shades of paint on the sports cars; and where fellow students include her boyfriend, Hristo, the son of a Bulgarian politician. She has a flat within easy reach of the shops on Kensington High Street, shares her mother’s fondness for black clothes and – if she fails to secure a job in political PR after finishing her master’s, as she intends – would have little difficulty finding work as a model.

Additionally, Yulia spent a small fortune restoring churches in her constituency that had been converted to other uses during the Soviet era. For this, the orthodox church honoured her with the order of St Varvara the Martyr. Pretty impressive, considering that her tax return, in 1996, acknowledged an income of just $7,200.

But the good times didn’t last. Her close ally, Lazarenko, had been prime minister for little more than a year when the Ukrainian courts accused him of embezzling. He fled the country on a Panamania passport. In Switzerland, he was convicted of money laundering, but not imprisoned. He’s currently in prison in San Francisco, awaiting extradition on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, transporting stolen property and involvement in contract killings. (He denies all charges.)

Soon after he disappeared, Tymoshenko abandoned her business career and entered parliament. This was the key moment in her lifestory – the point at which she went “straight”. It’s impossible to find a British equivalent, but imagine that Jeffrey Archer – physically embodied as his famously elegant wife, Mary – had suddenly reinvented himself as the head of the Inland Revenue. (And that Tony Blair was suspected of bumping off Jeremy Paxman.) A novelist or playwright would deeply appreciate the episode, because Tymoshenko’s motives remain utterly opaque. Did she give up the dishonest gas business because she wanted to – or because she had no alternative? And anyway, does that matter: are her subsequent attempts to clean up Ukraine any less worthwhile if her prior conduct was questionable?

Some suggest she quit business because she was nothing without Lazarenko. Naturally, she rejects that: “As a woman I find it offensive that there are people who keep looking for some big man’s shadow behind me.” She explains her move like this: “The corrupt nature of all our functionaries drives business into a criminal environment. There is no alternative. This is the reason why I went out of business. I didn’t want to go by those rules. No businessman can say that during my stint as deputy prime minister I ever offered any support to those vicious rules.”

On the contrary, as deputy to prime minister Yuschenko she worked furiously to remove corruption. He’d appointed her, after all, precisely because she knew how the industry worked. Generally speaking, the crimes of Ukrainian energy companies were more straightforward than, say, the crafty accounting practised by their American counterpart, Enron. Some distributors simply skimmed gas and sold it on. Others, looking to avoid taxes, paid for supplies with goods – steel, tyres, chickens, whatever – rather than cash. Tymoshenko, among other achievements, banned the bartering; and in one year recouped an additional nine billion hryvnia (or 1.7 billion dollars) in taxes. “I know that practically no one in this country except me carried out such a big washing up – such a big cleaning – as I did when I worked in the government.” A western observer who has spent many years in Kiev confirms that Tymoshenko is, “One of the few energetic personalities in a political scene full of stolid fatalists. She gave the government backbone and oomph.”

But in cleaning up the energy industry she also made enemies – including many friends and financial backers of president Kuchma. The first sign of trouble came in August 2000, when her husband was arrested on a charge of embezzlement. This was deeply undermining: reminiscent, she said at the time, of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Oleksandr spent nearly a year in prison. “I was never allowed to visit him,” she says, “although a meeting should be allowed once a month by law.” Oleksandr, for his part, says: “Having seen with my own eyes the full extent of this totalitarian system and felt its impact I am ready to help Yulia in every way I can.”

Nobody was surprised when, in January 2001, Kuchma dismissed Tymoshenko as deputy prime minister. But what she chose to do next raised eyebrows. Critics might have expected her to quit public life and retire with her money – perhaps go abroad. Instead, she joined a protest movement, demanding Kuchma’s removal, and led massive demonstrations on the streets of Kiev. On 13th February 2001 she was arrested and jailed on charges that she had bribed Lazarenko, smuggled nearly three billion cubic metres of gas, laundered money and evaded taxes.

Prison, predictably, was horrible. “As soon as I entered the cell, the light went out,” she remembers. “I asked my lawyer to bring me rubber gloves and duster and scrubbed the cell, especially the toilet. Then I tackled the spy-hole and all cracks in the door with the towel, and said if the guards removed it I would go on a hunger strike. The towel remained where it was. That was my victory.”

No books or publications were allowed except the Bible. “One can only use the books that are available at the prison library. And those libraries were created in Soviet times and never renewed. So, one couldn’t find anything there except the works of Lenin and Marx. One could subscribe to periodicals, but only to pro-presidential ones. One could also listen to the radio which is tuned to the official channel. After long fights I eventually got a TV set but could only watch the channel on which one could listen to the president’s speeches 24 hours a day.”

Unable to reach the Ukrainian media, she wrote from prison to the Financial Times, sending the letter through her lawyer. “Mr Kuchma has done everything within his power to destroy the freedom of the Ukrainian press,” she wrote. “He has amassed absolute control over the court system and all law enforcement agencies, and I am being held in prison by Mr Kuchma’s regime as a result of fabricated accusations… I believe that Mr Kuchma’s regime may go so far as to eliminate me physically, not just politically, but I have made my choice and will continue to fight him by democratic methods.”

On March 27th, a district court in Kiev found the charges against Tymoshenko to be groundless. She was released into a crowd of wellwishers. After acknowledging their support, she was taken away by ambulance, suffering disgestive problems and severe headaches. Political allies later claimed that, while in prison, she had been deliberately infected with tuberculosis.

Since then, Tymoshenko has worked hard at campaigning for the forthcoming election. She wakes at 6.00am to start work at 8.00. She finishes at 11.00pm, sometimes later. “The physical load is collosal. My drivers work for two weeks then they have two weeks off, and the same with my security. I don’t have days off, or holidays. But I am used to heavy workloads. If I rest, it seems to me that something is not right. I feel normal only in a stormy speed of life.”

Her work is constantly interrupted. “During the whole period I was in prison,” she says, “I wasn’t asked a single question. But after I was released the prosecution has called me every day for questioning. The questions are mostly silly and I have already answered them. This farce is to disrupt my work, to stress me out, to force me to fly off the handle and not show up for questioning.”

Last August, Russian police passed to Ukrainian prosecutors information substantiating allegations that Tymoshenko and her husband breached customs regulations by failing to declare $100,000 in cash on a flight from Russia to Ukraine in 1995. The prosecutor’s office refused to say why the case was made public only six years afterwards. Tymoshenko says it’s simple: Kuchma’s Russian allies want to undermine Ukraine’s opposition movement. The international community has never paid much attention to events in Ukraine; since September 11, world leaders have shown less interest than ever. But Tymoshenko won’t give up. She’ll continue to campaign – and outside Kiev, too, despite the court-imposed restrictions on travel. Yevgeniya, taking a break from her studies, will join her.

Until late last year, Yulia carried a bag with her, always ready for the possibility that she might be arrested. In November, she announced that she’d thrown the bag away. “I will not allow the authorities to treat me so brutally again,” she declared. “I know that nothing like this will happen.” But three months later, a red Zhiguli rammed her Mercedes. Is she still, as Kuchma suggested on the notorious tapes, unafraid? Of course not: “I’m a normal human being. I do feel fear. But what would you think of me if after all these threats I packed up and left Ukraine? Or if I stopped doing my utmost to clear all the mud around us? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frightened. But I am not frightened off.”

First published 1 April 2002