KYIV— Ukraine has started a 90-day campaign before elections for parliament on October 28. But Yulia Tymoshenko, the nation’s most popular opposition politician, can’t run.
Tymoshenko, who lost the 2010 presidential elections by only three percentage points, has been in jail for the past year.
VOA visited Tymoshenko’s fortress-like party headquarters in Kyiv and found her 32-year-old daughter Yevhenia sitting in the same chair, in the same office, where her mother had given us an interview 18 months earlier.
“What is going on is a build up of dictatorship in the Ukraine,” says Yevhenia. “Everybody feels it, feels this fear, this pressure of this machine that cannot be stopped from the inside, by Ukrainian forces.”
Her mother is serving a seven-year jail sentence for abusing her authority in 2009, when she was Ukraine’s prime minister. She is to be back in court on August 14 to face 15-year-old embezzlement charges. After that, prosecutors promise a murder charge.
The stress has landed Ukraine’s golden-haired opposition leader in a hospital with back pains and skin rashes. Her daughter Yevhenia left her life and husband in London to come home to Kyiv to try to win her mother’s release.
“My mother is in a hospital controlled by the regime,” she says. “Doctors are under pressure, as well as prosecutors and judges. And we fear for her life because every day there she’s under their control, and they can do anything to her. That is why they don’t want to let her go. They want to keep her under control, not being able to speak out.”
The man behind Yulia Tymoshenko’s woes is Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine. The first time he ran against the opposition in 2004, he narrowly lost. Viktor Yushchenko became president and Yulia Timoshenko became prime minister.
Analysts say President Yanukovych vows to never let that happen again.
Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at Kyiv Mohyla University, says, "He believes that he was humiliated during in 2004, so he needs a kind of revenge, and also to crush his political opponents. So I believe he is afraid of Tymoshenko.”
After one year in jail, Yulia Tymoshenko has bounced back in opinion polls. She now rivals President Yanukovych in popularity. Her supporters are mobilizing as Ukraine starts three months of campaigning for parliamentary elections at the end of October.
On Kyiv’s main avenue, Kreschatik, Alla Nedelka runs a Tymoshenko solidarity camp. She says Yulia Tymoshenko is the only dangerous rival for President Yanukovych, and one year in jail has helped to move the popular mood in Tymoshenko’s favor.
Political scientist Sergiy Kudelia believes Ukraine’s president is imitating Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has kept his chief rival, former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail for almost eight years.
"He hopes that Tymoshenko will become another Khodorkovsky,” says Kudelia who has taught Ukrainian politics at George Washington University. He says Ukraine’s president hopes the West will complain about it, will criticize him, but then, eventually, will agree with the fact she will be jailed for a long time.
Yevhenia Tymoshenko’s father is in exile in Prague, her mother faces trials in Kharkiv, but Yevhenia fights on.
“We are asking the democratic world not to leave us, and to continue the pressure, and to use all the instruments they have to stop the building up of dictatorship,” she says, sitting in her mother’s chair. “Because that is most important for us is: not to reason with the regime or to compromise with it. It is not going to work.”
In Ukraine, Europe’s sixth most-populous nation, the future of democracy may now be intertwined with the future of Yulia Tymoshenko.