The Maidan made Yulia Tymoshenko. It was here, during the protests of 2004-2005, that Tymoshenko, newly reinvented as a Ukrainian-speaking Joan of Arc, a newly dyed blonde with a peasant braid ringing her head like a halo, promised to usher Ukraine into a new, more modern and European era. Last night, nearly a decade later, she took the stage here again, this time in a wheelchair. She had just been released nearly two years into a politically motivated seven-year prison sentence—Yanukovich, her rival in the 2010 presidential elections, jailed her for overstepping her authority and profiting from a gas deal with Russia—and Tymoshenko looked the worse for it. She was tired and aged, barely any blonde left in her long-undyed hair.
As soon as she was sprung from the prison hospital where she had spent the last part of her sentence—she has a herniated disk in her back—she got on a plane and booked it for the Maidan. "I wanted to touch the stones, the sandbags on Hrushevskyy Street," she told the crowd, referring to the street where some of the bloodiest clashes took place. "I watched it all and I cried," she said of watching the clashes from prison. She saw "our boys" advancing toward the bullets with nothing but wooden shields, saying she wished she had been there, with her people. "Every bullet that went into the hearts of one of our heroes, is a bullet in our hearts," she wailed into the microphone. "But heroes don't die. Heroes live in our hearts forever." And the Maidan should be proud of its victory. It was you who did the impossible, she told the crowd, "not the politicians, not the diplomats."
"You are heroes," she went on. "You are Ukraine's very best."
People in the crowd wept, men and women both. Tymoshenko wept. It was an extraordinarily moving moment, as thousands of people assembled on the sooty square and celebrated its victory, but it began with an acknowledgement of how dearly it cost the country, delivered by a politician who knows how to move an audience.
Tymoshenko pressed on. After such a hard-won victory, she said, "if a government, a parliament is formed without you, it would be amoral." She urged the crowd not to leave the Maidan until all their demands had been met. "Under no circumstances can you leave this square, until you have accomplished all that you set out to accomplish," she said. "If someone tells you that your work here is done and that you should go home, don't believe a word of it." No more secret agreements, no more couloirs, she said, a master of secret agreements in couloirs. "I want to say to you on behalf of everyone that, until now, politicians have not been worthy of you. And I want to do everything so that you see new politicians, new civil servants."
And then the old Tymoshenko came out.
"Starting today, I am getting back to work," she said. "I will not a miss a moment to make sure that you feel happy in your own land." And she promised that she would be Ukraine's guarantor that the people are no longer duped by their politicians.
It sounded like the opening volley of a campaign, and there had already been rumors leaking from her camp that evening that Tymoshenko planned to run in the newly announced presidential elections in May. And the crowd wasn't having any of it.
When I was in Kiev last, in November 2009, Tymoshenko was running for president against Viktor Yanukovich, and her chances did not look good: Kievans I spoke to were fed up with her ruthless political style. Moreover, they saw her as a main reason for the ultimate failure of the Orange Revolution. She was also of questionable moral caliber: her fortune, then numbering in the hundreds of millions, was stashed abroad in cash and gold bullion, her mansion guarded by an army of personal bodyguards. Her business partner and crony politician Pavlo Lazarenko was in federal prison in the U.S. for money laundering, wire fraud, and transporting illegal goods, and there were charges that he siphoned off over $20 billion of Ukraine's public funds into personal accounts in the U.S. Tymoshenko had herself been arrested for trying to smuggle out millions in cash. There were rumors that she even canceled a trip to New York, fearing arrest in connection with Lazarenko's case. By the time she stepped out onto the Maidan, in 2004, she had become known as the "Gas Princess" for her iron fisted reign over Ukraine's notoriously murky and corrupt gas sector. At one point, she controlled one third of it, or 20 percent of Ukraine's GDP.
While in office as prime minister, from 2005 to 2010, she was as savage with her allies as she was with her opponents, coming down hard on party members for any perceived insubordination. After several contentious incidents with journalists, many questioned her commitment to press freedom. Vladimir Putin spoke warmly of her then as he does now, fondly recalling how well the two did business together.
It's one thing to be known, in the local parlance, as "a woman with balls"; it's entirely another to be called "Putin with a braid."
Tymoshenko's spokeswoman tried to quash the speculation this morning, saying that Tymoshenko was just focusing on reconnecting with her family, but it did nothing to blunt the reaction of Ukrainian liberals.
"Yes, Tymoshenko was in jail illegally, and the trial was politically motivated," wrote Ukrainian journalist Sergei Leschenko this morning. "There was no evidence of her personal enrichment from the gas contracts she signed with Putin. But with all due respect to Tymoshenko, it's not her turn to rule Ukraine."
He went on:
"I have the same kinds of documentation of bribes paid to Yanukovich, which were found in Mezhigorie [his personal dacha], except that [in the documents I have] she is the one paying Lazarenko. She paid him not 100 hryvni [roughly $11] but $100 million—at least. I have video testimony of an FBI agent testifying that she was Lazarenko's accomplice and that she paid him bribes. I have a stack of payment slips from Tymoshenko to Lazarenko, and I have the confessions of Tymoshenko's partners, as well as her hand-picked company directors, and I have a lot more...
I don't want people to write about the future president of Ukraine, a country that paid for this victory with blood, as of a person with a corrupt history. But if Tymoshenko becomes president, I will write that.
Let Tymoshenko be free, let her go back into business or philanthropy; let her be the director of the Mezhigorie museum, but don't let her be president! It was not on her behalf that the people came out.
Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian journalist whose Facebook post back in November first sent people out onto the Maidan, weighed in last night, too.
Many of us are sincerely happy, that Yulia Tymoshenko is no longer in jail. But let's be honest with ourselves: those who wish to see her back in politics are not many. She can be the symbol of repressions of the Viktor Yanukovich era, an example of perseverance, the respected leader of her party—anything other than an active politician. Yulia Tymoshenko has to remain in the past, a past with we parted so painfully. We all paid too dearly to step on that rake again. With all due respect.
His post received over 15,000 likes, and was shared well over 5,000 times. Perhaps this really is a new era.