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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » May 31, 2012
Politics & Society
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The Unknown Story of Yulia Tymoshenko
May 31, 2012   
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A few weeks before the kickoff of the Euro 2012 soccer championships, an event co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, a large group of leading European Union politicians threatened to boycott matches in Ukraine in protest at the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister. She was sentenced to seven years in prison at the end of 2011 after being found guilty of abuse of power while negotiating a gas deal with Russia.

According to Western European politicians, the verdict against Tymoshenko was politically motivated while the conditions in which Tymoshenko is being held are an insult to European standards. Consequently, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been pilloried.

But the case is not at all black and white. Rather, it proves that politicians in democratic countries do not understand or, even worse, pretend not to understand life in post-Soviet republics and their history over the last 20 years.

The story of Tymoshenko, now 52, is a textbook example of an ambitious businesswoman carving out a career in the disintegrating Soviet Union. In 1988, Tymoshenko borrowed 5,000 rubles, an equivalent of just over $1,000, from her family and opened a video rental shop with her husband with the help of her father-in-law, who was responsible for film distribution in Dnepropetrovsk City Council. Two years later, the couple were already running their own fuel business, which in 1995 was transformed into the United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a natural gas trading company with annual sales of $11 billion. Tymoshenko insists she owed all of this solely to her financial talent and hard work.

The problem is that her version seems to be just as credible as the story of Tatyana Dyachenko-Yumasheva, the favorite daughter of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who bought a castle in Bavaria and half of a high-profile high-rise in a prestigious Moscow district a few years ago—supposedly for her pocket money from daddy. Or that of Vladimir Gusinsky, an illegal taxi driver in the 1980s who used to hunt for customers at Moscow’s international airport and then went on to build a group of media companies, including a private television channel—apparently for money he had received in tips from grateful passengers.

A similar story can be told about virtually every oligarch in any former Soviet republic. Those who were on good terms with the authorities and allowed them to get their share of the money and secure a life of luxury for their families for several generations, are now doing fine. Those who fell into disfavor with those in power, or failed to accurately predict which group would come to power, ended up in exile. The worst is the fate of those who pursued their own political ambitions, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now being idealized by the West. Just like Tymoshenko.

From the beginning, Tymoshenko’s career was two-pronged—she was making big money and building a political powerbase at the same time. She set up political parties, held public offices, and alternately criticized the highest-ranking state officials and worked with them. Among these officials was Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president at the time of the Orange Revolution, President Yanukovych, now Tymoshenko’s biggest enemy, and Pavlo Lazarenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister who is now serving a nine-year prison term in the United States for embezzlement and money laundering.

Experts say Tymoshenko’s rise and fall is just an illustration of a struggle for power among several influential groups of politicians and businesspeople in today’s Ukraine—a struggle for control and big money where no one is unblemished.
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