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Profile: Presidential Candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s ‘Joan of Arc’

  • Henry Ridgwell

Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is trailing in polls ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May. She is one of the country’s best-known political figures, but many analysts say she is struggling to throw off her old pre-revolution image in the minds of the electorate.

Tymoshenko’s dramatic return to frontline politics came with her release from the hospital in February. She had been in jail -- and then hospitalized under guard -- since 2011, following her conviction on charges of abuse of office.

Her appearance that night in a wheelchair in Independence Square was met with cheers - but also some disapproval.

“She is quite controversial and the difficulty with her candidacy is to project the hope of the future. In a way she belongs to the older generation of Ukrainian politics, something that in many minds is associated with the former corrupt regime,” said Orysia Lutsevych, who is from the London-based analyst group Chatham House.

Tymoshenko was a central figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution and was appointed Prime Minister under President Viktor Yuschenko. Their alliance later fell apart - paving the way for the now-ousted Viktor Yanukovych to become president.

Observers say Tymoshenko is trying to shake off that past and play to her strengths as one of Ukraine’s best-known figures. At a recent news conference, she was asked how she would wrest Crimea back from Russia, following the region’s annexation last month.

"A lot of factors in returning Crimea to Ukraine depend on how we can build an economically strong, democratic and European state on the continental part of Ukraine," she said. "I think that an example of well-ordered lives, freedom that will become the spirit and sense of life in the new Ukraine, will set a strong example for anyone who once might have considered Russia as a possible new Motherland."

To become the leader of that new Ukraine, Tymoshenko is trading on her striking image, says Orysia Lutsevych.

“She’s called the Ukrainian ‘Joan of Arc’, somebody who can bring hope in a way of personalizing suffering, being ready not to compromise with [ousted president] Yanukovych’s regime and his people, she is believed to be a tough politician you know, someone who can fight the oligarchs,” she said.

In recent days pro-Russian armed groups have stormed city offices in several eastern Ukrainian cities.

Just tens of kilometers away, Russian forces are massed on Ukraine’s borders.

Tymoshenko has talked a tough game against President Vladimir Putin - but that may not help Ukraine in the long run, says Andrew Foxall of the analyst group the Henry Jackson Society.

“Recently she called President Putin ‘Ukraine’s enemy number one,’" he said. "And that I think would be a grave concern, in terms of how she would take the country forward with regards to Russia.”

Tymoshenko is resolutely pro-European and retains strong support in Ukraine’s west. But at a time when the country appears to be pulling itself apart, analysts say she remains a divisive figure.

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