The Return of Ukraine’s Gas Princess

Yulia V. Timoshenko, then Prime Minister of Ukraine, at the 45th Munich Security Conference in 2009 (Harald Dettenborn/Wikimedia Commons)

Yulia V. Timoshenko, then Prime Minister of Ukraine, at the 45th Munich Security Conference in 2009 (Harald Dettenborn/Wikimedia Commons)

Whilst an eerie calm begins to settle in over Maidan, tensions in Crimea escalate as Putin orders troops to test combat readiness in the region. The country remains divided and continues to plummet into financial ruin, ousted President Yanukovich is a fugitive on the run, and many questions on the future of Ukraine and its leaders remain up in the air.

After the signing of a Western-backed peace agreement between opposition forces and President Viktor Yanukovych, it appears that full-scale civil war has been dodged, although the country certainly has a rocky road ahead. A new interim government has been formed with Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the Prime Minister, an announcement that received a cold reception amongst the crowds. The swift release over the weekend of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader and bitter rival of Mr. Yanukovych, has conjured up rumors of her future leadership role in Ukraine. Dubbed the “Gas Princess” in the 1990s after becoming one of Ukraine’s richest and most powerful oligarchs, Tymoshenko remains a respected opposition leader.

Saturday evening, fashioning her signature braided-bun, now having faded to a mousy brown, and looking significantly less glamorous than her previous appearances, Tymoshenko spoke to the crowds at Independence Square, applauding them for their resilience and determination. This time round, in comparison to her reception during the Orange Revolution, a chilly vibe amongst the crowd clouded her performance. One sign even read, “people didn’t die for this”, illustrating the Ukrainian citizens desire to start afresh.

Would the return of the gas princess to power really be the blank new slate Ukraine needs? Tymoshenko has served 30 months out of her 7-year jail term on the count of corruption during her term as prime minister. She was accused of abuse of power after she signed a deal with Russian giant Gazprom, one that was opposed by her entire cabinet and is claimed to have cost the country $12 billion.

Many have associated the return of Tymoshenko to the scene as a sign of her political reincarnation in Ukraine. After a term with Yanukovych, under whom the corruption and dominance of oligarchs in the political sphere prevailed, many Ukrainians are hoping the country will turn over a fresh new leaf, one that will help it regain respect among its European neighbors. While Tymoshenko has vowed to start over, we should recall that it was not so long ago that she herself was a vicious businesswoman using her amassed wealth to strive toward political influence. It is widely considered that she, like Yanukovych, is a symbol of Ukraine’s past and failed attempts for the country to deal with corruption.

A brief look at the past of Tymoshenko’s rise to power tells us that she is no angel herself. Educated as an engineer and economist in the Russian-speaking city of Dnipropetrovsk, she was keen to benefit from the many business opportunities presenting themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her ambition and money hungry determination helped her form United Energy Systems of Ukraine in the 1990s, a company in charge of supplying gas to Ukraine’s industries, which would make her millions.

Her empire has been negatively associated with the ranks of Ukraine’s wealthy and corrupt, including the well-known “raiders”. Billionaires Igor Kolomoisky and Gennady Bogolyubov of the Privat Group are famous for their hostile takeovers of companies by replacing members on the Board of Directors with their own loyal Privat cronies. Such was the scenario in 2006, when the duo took over the Kremenchuk steel factory and placed it under Privat’s control, by ordering an army of their thugs to raid the premises with baseball bats and chainsaws.

A similar scenario also took place in 1999 with the privatization and violent takeover of Iuzhni Gorno-Obogatitelni Kombina (IuGOK) during which shares of the enterprise were awarded to companies closely affiliated to the Privat Group. Not so coincidentally, they were placed under the control of Tymoshenko’s United Energy Systems, indicating the tight-knitted and unsavoury relationship between Tymoshenko, Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov and their businesses.

IuGOK remained under her control until mid-2001, at which point Tymoshenko lost her position as the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and was arrested on the suspicion of gas smuggling and tax evasion (charges that were conveniently dropped when she later became Prime Minister). Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov, seeing the weakened position of Tymoshenko and her inability to safeguard their business interests, were able to successfully take over IuGOK and place it under the control of Privat.

Tymoshenko’s business partnership and close relationship with Pavlo Lazarenko, the former Ukrainian PM labelled by Transparency International the 8th most corrupt man in the world, sparks further controversy about the lawfulness of her past activities. The wealthy duo were coined “partners in crime” in the 90s when Lazarenko was the Energy Minister and then later Prime Minister of Ukraine, and together are accused of monopolizing the gas sector in the country and hiding their millions in foreign accounts. Lazarenko was charged with money laundering among other crimes and jailed for 13 years in the United States. Even though Tymoshenko was not charged and denied any wrongdoing, the report of the case names her as the “co-conspirator” in the operations of Mr. Lazarenko.

It appears the West suffers from double standards when it comes to Ukraine’s leaders. While Yanukovich has been consistently denounced as a crony serving the interests of the oligarchs, Tymoshenko has been pitied in the press and her sentence internationally criticized and described as politically motivated. This is despite the clear evidence of her involvement in the Lazerenko money laundering case.

Surely the return of the gas princess with a corrupt past threatens the political transformation and fresh face Ukraine so desperately needs, and risks a repetition of past mistakes. During this delicate time period, Tymoshenko’s presence could likely tip the sinking boat overboard, rather than act as a harbinger for change. The EU, US and Russia need to brace themselves for the tough times ahead as Ukraine battles to secure a stable future, and work together to ensure the country doesn’t cripple into destruction. That said, what has been made clear over the last few months is that Ukraine’s future ultimately rests in the hands of its citizens, who have not hesitated to take to the streets to denounce perceived injustices.

Caroline Holmund

Caroline Holmund is a management consultant and freelance writer currently based out of New York. She has a particular interest in Eastern Europe, having begun her career working there after completing graduate school in the UK. 

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