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Uneaten Cake and Dashed Hopes at Yulia Tymoshenko's Election HQ

Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

In the end, it came down to two platters. At the hip, minimalist Mystetski Arsenal Gallery, Petro Poroshenko’s HQ, guests fought over plates of finger food, cognac, and wine. Across town at Yulia Tymoshenko’s more sombre bash at the neo-Soviet President Hotel, four large chocolate cakes lay largely untouched. Tymoshenko’s team sat glum and offended, as they had for much the campaign, and the few journalists assembled there made it pretty clear they would've preferred to be elsewhere. When Tymoshenko herself arrived at half past eight, 30 minutes after the devastating exit polls came through, her speech was uncharacteristically short. With emotion clearly evident, she said that the Ukrainian people had delivered their verdict in a democratic vote. Now it was no longer about her. Those weren’t exactly her words, of course, but was what was everyone in the hall was thinking.

It was supposed to be so different. Ukraine’s iron lady was, after all, the most symbolic victim of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, cruelly imprisoned by her paranoid foe in 2011. When parliament voted for her release on February 22, Tymoshenko flew direct from Kharkiv to Kiev to address the crowds at Maidan, which was at the time still mourning the fallen. She reserved confirmation of presidential ambitions for off-record briefings, but the political nature of her address left few of the crowd in any doubt.

Tymoshenko began to work to exert influence on the new government. Along with other party leaders, she took part in an expanded session of the Security Council in early March, where she pushed for withdrawal from Crimea without military engagement—sensible enough given the state of the army. Her next moves raised eyebrows. She began to give press conferences in parliament, even though she was not actually a sitting MP. According to a high-level government official, she then lobbied acting president Oleksandr Turchinov to appoint her Minister for Defense, and, failing that, Secretary of the Security Council. These demands were blocked, however, and this seems to have caused a major falling out with her one-time apprentice. 

As the Tymoshenko’s options narrowed, the presidential race started. She started the campaign as the clear underdog, with polls indicating just 9.4 percent support in late March, against front-runner Poroshenko’s 31.7 percent. Supporters insisted that this was a position that would suit her fighting style. A consummate orator, instinctive populist, and historically strong finisher, she would certainly narrow the gap, many believed. But the longer it went on, the more the opposite reality proved the case.

That the campaign had not gone well was obvious from the very mixed reception she received during a tour of her former rural heartlands in the final days of her campaign. On Thursday, May 21, Tymoshenko visited the provincial towns of Konotop and Romny in Sumy Oblast, the Ukrainian-speaking region that borders Russia in the east of the country. In the 2010 presidential elections, Tymoshenko did pretty well in these parts, finishing a comfortable first with 37 percent of the vote. Yet now she was, in perfect weather, barely mustering a crowd of a few hundred. Several thousands had turned out to see Poroshenko in these towns a week earlier. 

Even among those who showed up, not everyone was sympathetic to her. In Romny, a heckler questioned Tymoshenko’s every phrase. “I liked her at the start, good-looking lady and all that,” he explained. “But she fools no one when she pretends that she’s all fresh and new.” A few feet away, two people—a man and a woman—were holding up a banner that read “Yulia our president.” Were they activists, I enquired? Not exactly: they were “helping a friend out." Laughing as she spoke, the woman dismissed Tymoshenko’s chances in the region: “Yulia makes lovely promises, but people don’t forget what happened when she was in charge.” She stopped talking as soon as she saw another busy-looking woman with a clipboard move toward us. The woman introduced herself as Irina Mitrofanova, head of the local party branch. Mitrofanova predicted an overwhelming victory for Yulia. The polls were fake, she said, paid for by political interests with an axe to grind against Yulia.

Throughout the two days I spent following them, Tymoshenko and her team seemed consumed by anger and victimhood. Everyone was out to get them; nothing and no one could be trusted. On the bumpy road from Konotop to Romny, I spoke with the editor of Tymoshenko’s campaign website, who presented herself as Anastasia “B” (she wouldn’t disclose her surname). A hard-hitter with absolute devotion to her boss, Anastasia offered soundbites that felt as though they might have come from Tymoshenko herself. I asked her why Tymoshenko’s speeches were focused disproportionately on the character of her opponent. “Poroshenko is a coward,” said Anastasia. “Three times we dared him to a one-on-one debate, and three times he refused. The last thing this country needs now is a coward.” Evolving from founding member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to hero of Maidan, Poroshenko had consistently demonstrated he was prepared to champion any cause he needed to, she added.

In fact, during the rallies, Tymoshenko herself demonstrated remarkable political flexibility, presenting a series of highly unlikely positions. She asked the crowds to consider her an anti-oligarch, anti-corruption candidate; the only candidate totally independent from big money interests. The country’s all-powerful oligarchic class has consolidated around the more predictable, and perhaps more sympathetic, Poroshenko. But her assertion that she was the anti-corruption candidate looked tenuous in light of the riches she amassed during the 1990s. And if she now really was independent from big money, it was unlikely to be from choice.

Tymoshenko assured her crowds, too, that she would fight for them against political monopolization in Ukraine (the fight was no doubt also her own, given her unflattering poll ratings). At her final rally in the city of Chernihiv, the one place where she did attract a sizeable crowd, Tymoshenko declared she had been offered the position of prime minister in exchange for standing down for Poroshenko. Government sources have confirmed to me that such an offer was indeed made; the proposal actually went further, and included an offer to create unified party lists in early parliamentary elections. But there was no way Tymoshenko would have accepted such a compromise: “They thought I’d step aside to let an oligarch take over. Never!”

Tymoshenko made a consistent point of criticizing the media. She had not been given fair coverage on any TV channels, she declared. “Don’t listen to what they are saying!” she said. “The stations are all controlled by oligarchs.” Tymoshenko’s staff were particularly angry with investigative newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, and especially their deputy editor Sergii Leshchenko. Leshchenko's investigations of Tymoshenko’s links with disgraced former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko damaged the campaign, and the team was visibly smarting. “It’s easy to bite someone who cannot bite back,” said Anastasia. 

Leshchenko’s investigations brought to light nearly $100 million in payments made by Tymoshenko’s husband to Lazarenko via an offshore company in Cyprus in the late ’90s. According to Leshchenko, these payments were in fact bribes paid to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of gas contracts for United Energy Systems of Ukraine—a company set up by Tymoshenko in 1995 within weeks of Lazarenko becoming first deputy prime minister. Leshchenko’s sources included open public documents from the US Ministry of Justice and Court of San Francisco, as well as interviews with FBI agents. Leshchenko was dismissive of Anastasia’s accusations. “I believe my sources, and I know Tymoshenko has been lying to the Ukrainian people for many years.”

Judging by Tymoshenko’s resolutely flat numbers throughout the campaign, many Ukrainians share such distrust. With just 12.4 percent of the popular vote, and a decimated rural and pensioner core vote, Tymoshenko’s political future is now firmly in the balance. With parliamentary elections likely to be called soon, perhaps as early as August, much will depend on her ability to compromise and co-align. Perhaps she can find a common language with Oleh Lyashko, who polled unexpectedly well at 9 percent, a figure that probably included many voters from Tymoshenko’s former constituencies. Compromise, however, has never been Tymoshenko’s strong suit. As the government official I spoke to put to me: “This Queen is a fighter, and she doesn’t do Aikido. Her genre is Sumo wrestling.”