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Kiev Chameleon

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The woman who could be Ukraine’s next president believes she's Evita. Literally, Evita. How scared should the world be?

KIEV–Like many Ukrainian politicians, prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko relies on fortune-tellers and TV psychics to bolster her embattled spirit. Several years ago, one such mystical specialist compared birth years, personality types, and other intimate details to confirm what Tymoshenko had suspected since the 1996 release of the movie Evita.

“She was told she is the reincarnation of Eva Perón,” says Dmitry Vydrin, who was Tymoshenko’s close adviser for nearly a decade. “And she believes it. She admits it in closed circles. She copies her consciously and subconsciously.” There's the elaborate, kaleidoscopic wardrobe; the bleached up-do; the theatrical mannerisms; the way the public rustles whenever she appears. “It's that way of flirting with the public, of addressing them as ‘my loved ones,'” Vydrin says. And there are the men whom the two women used to get out of poverty, but then brightly eclipsed. For Evita, it was her husband, Argentine President Juan Perón; for Tymoshenko, it was a string of well-connected men, starting with her father-in-law and ending with Ukraine's current president and hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko.

But, while Evita never held office, Tymoshenko is within striking distance of her country's presidency. She may be polling behind front-runner Viktor Yanukovich (who lost in 2004), but observers say she is likely to gain many of the votes scattered among 16 other candidates who will fall away after the first round of voting on January 17. She'll then face the wooden, gaffe-prone Yanukovich, who twice did jail time for assault and theft, and many observers think she can take him.

But, if she wins, what can Ukraine–and the world–expect from this Soviet-bloc Evita? With Ukraine teetering on the geopolitical fulcrum between Russia and the West, it's no small question: If Tymoshenko wins, her party will control all three branches of government. Gas negotiations with Moscow? Tymoshenko will decide. NATO ascension? Ditto, that.

Tymoshenko’s authoritarian proclivities are well-known–and feared–among the country's elite, and they’ve earned her comparisons to another political leader: Vladimir Putin. Many observers say it's chilling to consider what her leadership could mean for the green shoots of Ukrainian democracy. “I am really very scared,” Vydrin told me. (Once her image-maker and close friend, Vydrin was forced out of Tymoshenko’s political party in 2006. He is now Yushchenko’s deputy security minister, but his wife is still friends with Tymoshenko.) “You can’t stop her in any normal political way. You can’t beat her on TV, you can’t out-argue her on the town square. If she had more biological time on earth, she’d become president of the Ukraine, president of the EU, president of the U.S. The only thing that can stop her is Tymoshenko herself.”

Kicking off her campaign this fall,Tymoshenko made sure, as always, to invoke her impoverished roots. “When I was starting out, there were seven of us living in one apartment,” she said. “We dreamed of getting on our feet and getting our first apartment–our first personal square meters.” She then assured the crowd that she could lead Ukraine through the current economic crisis. “I know quite well what it means to live without water, gas, or heat. And that’s why I will put an end to this.”

The story of a poor childhood is a stumping staple for Tymoshenko, whose fortune of several hundred million dollars is said to be squirreled away in British offshore accounts and gold bullion, and whose mansion is protected by an army of personal bodyguards. Yet, like Eva Perón, who is said to have forged her birth certificate, Tymoshenko is also deeply ashamed of the parts of her past that she cannot sublimate into myth.

She was born in 1960, in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, and lived in a broken home. Her father left when Tymoshenko was very young, and she was raised by her mother. (She denies persistent rumors that she is an Armenian Jew.) Seeking a way up and out, she joined the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party. Around this time, she met her future husband, Oleksandr, the son of a regional party boss. They married in 1979 and soon had their only child, Yevgenia. Though their marriage hasn't been a happy one--they haven't lived together for more than ten years and never appear together in public–Oleksandr’s connections proved useful: His father helped the couple start a business and, later, facilitated Tymoshenko’s leap to lead a local gasoline monopoly.

Soon, however, Tymoshenko met a man with still more connections: regional political kingpin Pavlo Lazarenko, an ally of Leonid Kuchma, the newly elected--and notoriously corrupt--second president of Ukraine. Tymoshenko followed Lazarenko to Kiev as he began his political ascent. When he became prime minister in 1996, Lazarenko helped his disciple form United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UES), a gas-trading company that was, essentially, a lucrative money-laundering operation. According to 1999 court documents, Lazarenko gave Tymoshenko special concessions that allowed her to consolidate one-third of Ukraine's gas sector--and about one-fifth of its GDP. The operation earned Tymoshenko the nickname “Gas Princess."

Tymoshenko soon entered politics, winning a 1996 parliamentary election in a landslide. But, when Kuchma fired Lazarenko, she joined her old friend in the opposition--and Kuchma took his revenge. He had UES kicked out of the gas sector and, in 2001, Tymoshenko was arrested for illegally transferring $1 billion out of Ukraine and paying millions in bribes to Lazarenko. She was placed in solitary confinement for a month. “That arrest had a big effect on her,” says a source who helped Tymoshenko at the time. (The charges were later dropped.) “From that moment, absolute power became absolute protection in her mind." 

Her pursuit of absolute power led her to yet another influential man: rising political star Viktor Yushchenko. “She was in love with him, platonically and politically,” says Vydrin, who introduced them in 1996. “She sensed that he was the manifestation of the things she wanted to have, which was Ukrainian authenticity." At the time, Ukraine was trying to wrench itself out of Russia’s orbit, and nationalism played well with voters. Yushchenko, a calm agrarian patriarch who spoke Ukrainian, fit the mold. Tymoshenko, however, was from a Russian-speaking region, and her frenetic political style reflected her hardscrabble, urban upbringing. So, under her new mentor's wing, Tymoshenko took up Ukrainian and revamped her political persona.

In 1999, Yushchenko, then prime minister, put Tymoshenko in charge of the energy sector. “It was like a poacher guarding the wildlife reserve,” says Andrey Ermolaev, a political scientist with a Yanukovich-linked think tank. “And the result was unexpected: She was the most effective guard.” In her new guise as corruption fighter, Tymoshenko got rid of the complex barter system in the gas-trading business–the very system that had made her rich–and converted it to a cash scheme, helping solve many of the government’s budgetary problems.

This was the first seed of her budding populist persona, but it wasn’t until November 2004, when hundreds of thousands gathered in Kiev to protest Yushchenko’s stolen presidential election, that Tymoshenko underwent her most stunning transformation yet. The brunette in a power suit was gone: As the lieutenant of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko emerged as Ukraine personified. She appeared in a braided blonde crown and the embroidery of a Ukrainian peasant, and she refused to speak Russian, instead addressing the masses in her new tongue. "People saw her readiness to self-sacrifice, her leadership. She was a combination of Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa," says Volodymyr Fesenko, who chairs Kiev’s Center for Political Studies. It was then that the Gas Princess became, simply, “Yulia.”

Yushchenko eventually won and appointed Tymoshenko prime minister in 2005. But the two were soon bickering viciously, as the president grew jealous of Tymoshenko’s growing popularity. That fall, with the revolution's hopes dashed, Yushchenko booted Tymoshenko–only to have Yanukovich replace her.

But Tymoshenko regrouped. Putting recent rivalries aside, she approached her parliamentary enemies and convinced them to join the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT). Two months later, in December 2007, she squeaked back into the prime ministership by a one-vote margin. And, from this perch, she's continued hammering away at Yushchenko.

In her secondstint as prime minister, Tymoshenko has finally pulled away from her male tugboats. She is, as many Ukrainians say, the only man among the men in national politics. But Tymoshenko also knows how to use her femininity: Her clothing is comically revealing in its attempts at modesty, she giggles at press conferences, and she often plays the damsel set-upon by obstreperous male politicians. Yet Vydrin, Tymoshenko' former adviser, compares her to Lady Macbeth and says that, for the last several years, “she has been burning out any kindness, sentimentality, tenderness inside herself because she thinks it makes her weak.”

Subordinates say she is a tyrannical boss who expects her wishes to be decoded and obeyed. Vydrin, for instance, was booted from BYuT for violating party rules. “I was against using horns and clackers to drown out debate in the parliament,” he says. This dictatorial style carries over into her politics. She has already forced one prominent entrepreneur–gas-trader Dmitry Firtash–out of business for not supporting her, and, in early December, she announced that she wants to nationalize the property of many oligarchs (There are also rumors circulating that she planned a raid on Yanukovich’s house.)

Tymoshenko’s mania for quick victories, however, has often cost her, or her country, in the long run. Her constant back-biting with Yushchenko, for example, may have hurt his ratings, but it has dragged hers down as well. In November, she made a big show of fighting a swine flu epidemic that didn't exist (the WHO said there was nothing unusual about Ukraine's flu numbers). The spectacle briefly boosted her popularity but also triggered a dangerous hoarding of supplies. Within a month, Ukrainians had caught on to the game, costing Tymoshenko a dip in the polls.

She's also taken to playing both sides in the Russia-Europe gas skirmishes. This has helped boost her international profile, but it has also raised questions about her trustworthiness. Putin recently said he was “comfortable” working with Tymoshenko, but Kremlin insiders worry about what her presidential victory could mean for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. "It is very dangerous to make deals with her," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin (and who worked on Yanukovich’s 2004 campaign). “She is one of the most cunning people in the post-Soviet era.”

If she wins, Tymoshenko's presidency could also be hampered by the fact that, while she thrives on clashes with those she seeks to overtake, she often miscalculates once she's on top. “She feels more comfortable in the opposition,” says her campaign adviser Taras Berezovets, “but she loves power.” Most notably, when Yushchenko called for new parliamentary elections in 2008, Tymoshenko blocked them in the courts in order to remain prime minister and refused, against the urgings of many in her party, to join the opposition. Then came the financial crisis, which slammed Ukraine especially hard. “If she had been in the opposition, she’d be the number one candidate right now, without a doubt,” says Fesenko of Kiev’s Center for Political Studies. “But she made the decision to get power and, as prime minister, ended up taking on all the responsibility for the crisis.” 

If she becomes president, some observers see a short authoritarian experiment ahead. So little has gotten done in the last few years because of Ukraine's constant state of political crisis that recent surveys reveal a public appetite for “a strong hand”–a la Putin. But there is hope that, unlike Russia, Ukraine is too regionally fragmented and politically multi-polar for authoritarianism to last very long. (That, and Kiev lacks Moscow's massive security apparatus.)

Then again, there are hints that the ever-morphing Tymoshenko might abandon her populist leanings in favor of an iron fist. “She’s not liberal or market-oriented,” says campaign adviser Berezovets. “She believes that, even in a non-crisis economy, government has to be the main player.” She’s already used the government to cultivate and reward powerful allies. When she switched the gas-trading industry to a cash system, for instance, Tymoshenko directed a large stream of untraceable cash to a new company called Itera, which was said to be owned by many of the top names in Russia’s energy behemoth, Gazprom. And, although she seems likely to keep flirting with NATO ascension, she will probably take Russian money and instead join CSTO, Moscow’s answer to the Western alliance. (This would frighten many veterans of the Orange Revolution.) Moreover, her recent attacks on the media--she reportedly banned three journalists from participating in a recent talk show with her, though she denies the allegation--have some observers questioning her commitment to press freedoms.

“You want my expert opinion?” says Sergiy Solodkyy, a former journalist and deputy director of a Kiev think tank, sitting in a café near the square where, five years ago, Tymoshenko reinvented herself as the heroine of the Orange Revolution. "She’s like nuclear energy: It can be used peacefully or for war. Will she become a nuclear power plant, or an atomic bomb? She has the capacity for either one.”

Julia Ioffe is a writer living in Moscow.