Why critics are piling on Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko

As Ukrainian nationalist.
As Ukrainian nationalist.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
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A Ukrainian investigative reporter says that if Yulia Tymoshenko is elected president, he will unleash his sleuthing skills against her. In a blog post, Sergei Leschenko says that Tymoshenko has a tainted past and should stand aside for new blood to lead Ukraine after last week’s ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych.

The knives are out for Tymoshenko, who twice has been prime minister of Ukraine. Tymoshenko has been released after serving two years of a seven-year prison term on charges (slapped on her by Yanukovych, her political arch-enemy) of cutting a bad natural gas deal with Russia. Writers and analysts are trotting out unflattering old profiles of her. She is authoritarian, corrupt and a kook, they assert, a woman who believes she is a reincarnation of Eva Peron.

But what are they really saying? By and large, that, in their opinion, Tymoshenko got as far as she did on her good looks, and that, unless she herself decides not to run, silly Ukrainians will return her to power, fooled by what the Economist calls her “terrifying … sexual magnetism.” “Don’t let her looks fool you,” writes the Daily Beast. Instead, pay attention to “Tymoshenko’s not-so-pretty past.” The Wire says that male pundits find Tymoshenko sexually threatening, but it isn’t just the men focused on her looks. The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe describes Tymoshenko’s national political emergence in 2004 as a “Ukrainian-speaking Joan of Arc, a newly dyed blonde with a peasant braid ringing her head like a halo.”

When they are not pointing out Tymoshenko’s braid, her critics are finding ways to discredit her for not always looking like the photo above. When she got out of prison, they say, she was haggard. While in power, they say, she was and looked plain mean. Not only that, before she helped to lead the 2004 Orange Revolution, she had dark hair.

So what is the real rap on Tymoshenko? The criminal taint cited by detractors involves her stewardship of United Energy Systems, which in the middle-late 1990s controlled the supply of natural gas to Dnepropetrovsk, an important industrial city. US charges brought in 2009 against Pavlo Lazarenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister, alleged that from 1995 to 1997, Tymoshenko funneled him about $97 million from the gas sales (pdf page 7). She herself may have received up to $40 million although that is spelled out nowhere. Everyone agrees, however, that she became wealthy.

Leschenko, the Ukrainian blogger, asserts that it’s not enough to say that in the 1990s, it was impossible to do business without paying bribes. (In fact, that is true about doing business in Ukraine at that time, and now, too). “Each of us makes a free moral choice as to whether to pay bribes, a still freer one as to whether to accept them,” he says. He goes on:

I do not want to spend my time digging up dirt and writing about the corrupt past of the future president of Ukraine–the one elected after the country suffered its worst bloodshed since the Second World War. But if you become President, Yulia Volodymyrivna, that is what I will do.

The truth, however, is that in Ukraine and everywhere in the former Soviet Union, power in business is held almost uniformly by men. The toughest, and most male, industries of all are the extractive businesses–oil, gas, mining. Often, those at the top got there using tough-guy tactics, far worse than anything of which Tymoshenko is accused. You do not reach and thrive there on mere good looks. It is correct that one ought to be answerable for one’s past. But one gets the impression that base stereotypes are playing into the judgments we are hearing.