The hunger games
Yulia Tymoshenko ... former prime minister of Ukraine.
Image may not be everything, but for politicians, especially female ones, it can come pretty close. Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister of Ukraine, seems to understand this better than most: the giant golden braid she wears wrapped round her head like a crown seems almost understated in comparison to the campaign posters which won her the 2007 election, in which she appears variously stroking a baby tiger, straddling a gigantic motorbike and apparently preparing to take the Ukrainian people into outer space – without a hair out of place, of course.
These images of power and freedom did make a sort of sense at the time. Tymoshenko had been one of the faces of the Orange Revolution just a couple of years before, during which huge protests over election fraud saw the president, Victor Yanukovich, kicked out of office in favour of Tymoshenko’s political ally, Victor Yushchenko.
Space odyssey ... one of the campaign posters that won her the 2007 election.
Tymoshenko herself became prime minister, and Forbes magazine had recently voted her the world’s third most powerful woman. While her mix of pro-Western policies and state intervention had been criticised overseas as poorly managed, her opinion poll ratings at home were strong. If anyone could afford to portray herself as a space-traveler-come-tamer-of-machines-and-mammals, she was the one.
But things haven’t been looking so good lately. Last October, Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her prime ministerial power over a gas deal with Russia in 2009 and sentenced to seven years in prison – a sentence many, including Tymoshenko, see as a way of keeping her out of the 2015 presidential elections. In April she began a hunger strike, alleging that she has been beaten up by prison guards and releasing photos of bruises that the authorities say are self-inflicted. Outrage at her treatment has spread from Germany – which is reportedly considering a boycott of the European football championships soon to be held in the country – to the US and even Russia.
Tymoshenko’s high personal profile has no doubt helped attract international attention to her cause, but the woman under the blonde halo isn’t exactly a saint. For a start she’s very capable of using her looks to manipulate a situation. According to the Guardian, one male journalist who met her in 2004 reported that she “softly but persistently” stroked his arm throughout the interview - he failed to take any notes as a result. More seriously, as president of Ukraine’s gas importing monopoly in the 1990s, she gained the nickname “gas princess” as well as a great deal of personal wealth and now faces accusations of reselling stolen gas and avoiding taxes at a time when much of the business conducted in the region was very poorly regulated (she denies the charges).
But for all the questions about her conduct, she has supporters calling for her release ranging from Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Ukrainian feminist campaigners FEMEN, who have shown their support by holding one of their signature topless protests outside her prison – a turnaround for a group which may share Tymoshenko’s understanding of using your looks for attention, but which has never backed the politician in the past.
This pressure is unlikely to lead to Tymoshenko’s release, but the arrest seems only to have raised her profile – and her opinion poll ratings. President Yanukovich, meanwhile, is likely to lose the 2015 election if his popularity does not improve, and Tymoshenko will no doubt return to political centrestage. At which point common sense, if not historical precedent, would recommend paying more attention to the gas princess’s policies than her hairstyle.