Behind the Braid: Who Is Yulia Tymoshenko?
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko, Oleh Tiahnybok signed a deal this morning to end the bloodshed that has taken over Kiev and the surrounding area this week. While they agreed on a coalition government and early presidential elections, there was one name that went ignored: Yulia Tymoshenko.
Known for her persistence and perfecly coiffed blonde braid that wraps her head, Tymoshenko first emerged as the thorn in Yanukovych’s side when she co-led the Orange Revolution — a wave of protests and political events calling out an allegedly rigged presidential election in 2004.
Groups inside and outside of Ukraine alleged that a run-off election between current president Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko was rigged for Yanukovych, and Ukrainians protested until the run-off results were thrown out. Yushchenko became the clear victor in the official vote that followed, and the Orange Revolution ended when he was inaugurated on Jan. 23, 2005.
That same year, Tymoshenko settled into her role as prime minster, but Yushchenko booted her out for ruffling feathers. They made nice eventually, and she was re-elected in 2007, but the feud between the two never really ended.
Never one to accept defeat, Tymoshenko nearly beat current president Yanukovych in the 2010 election, losing by a very narrow margin. She claimed the vote was rigged, but she could never prove it.
But political turmoil and official titles aside, Tymoshenko represents a modern Ukraine. She was outspoken about breaking ties with Russia and campaigned hard to eradicate corrupt clans in Ukraine. She wanted to shed the Soviet cloud that still hangs over the country — a mindset that anti-government protesters blame on Yanukovych.
One year after losing the presidency, Tymoshenko was jailed for abuse of office. Many people claimed her trial was rigged. And her supporters — many of whom are the same people taking to the streets in this three-month-long clash with Yanukovych’s regime — have campaigned for her freedom ever since.
So when Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed an agreement today without a nod to Tymoshenko, protesters were outraged. But just hours later, parliament voted to amend the criminal code in Tymoshenko’s favor. The unexpected news was met with an uproar of cheers in both the streets and inside parliament.
Now, Yanukovych has 15 days to sign the law that would free the former prime minister. Yes, he could refuse, but it will still likely push through because an overwhelming majority voted for her release.
Does that mean Ukrainians see a familiar face in the early elections this year? Tymoshenko’s lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko, says she’ll need months of rest and medical treatment due to a back injury that went ignored when she was in prison, rendering her unable to walk.
Her supporters, however, are still holding out hope.
“She definitely will,” said Taras Berezovets, director of political consultancy Berta Communications. “She wants revenge. And she is the best candidate for this job.”
Colin Daileda and Christopher Miller contributed to this report.