Nine Lives

Nine Lives

The latest political meltdown in Ukraine has the imprint of one politician who won’t step down—Yulia Tymoshenko.

When Ukrainian parliamentarian and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko traveled to the United States last month, she boldly told the Washington Times that if the current administration, under the leadership of archrival Vikor Yanukovich, served out its full term to 2011, "there would be nothing left of a democratic Ukraine. The territory would still exist, but it would not be Ukraine any longer." Less than a month later, her former Orange Revolution partner, President Viktor Yushchenko, dissolved parliament and called for early elections. Coincidence or influence?

Tymoshenko has been maneuvering behind the scenes since Yushchenko unceremoniously ousted her as prime minister in September 2005. Tymoshenko had stood by Yushchenko's side during Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, which toppled a stagnant, corrupt regime led by Viktor Yanukovich. Appointed to the prime minister post for her efforts, she quickly took on Ukraine's oligarchs and friends of Yanukovich, moving to re-privatize industrial assets, allegedly bought on the cheap by billionaires Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk. (One such asset, the steel plant Kryvorizhstal, which was obtained by Akhmetov and Pinchuk for $800 million, was later sold to billionaire Lakshmi Mittal for nearly $5 billion.) Her lobbying even led to criminal investigations of Akhmetov, who quietly left Ukraine until the heat settled (all investigations have been dropped). But with opposition forces having had quite enough of Tymoshenko and her bickering within the ruling coalition, Yushchenko moved to quiet her.

Vowing a comeback, Tymoshenko led her party to gain 22 percent of the parliamentary seats in the March 2006 elections. Yushchenko's own party received only 14 percent. He was in a politically tenuous position, having just eked his way out of the winter's gas crisis, which saw Russia's Gazprom cut off Ukrainian supplies. The standoff with Russia hurt not only Ukraine but also several European countries, including Germany, which depend on supplies via Ukraine's pipelines. As a result, neither Yushchenko nor Tymoshenko was able to form a coalition. Tension among the new deputies in parliament was high. The pro-Russian party of Viktor Yanukovich, with 32 percent of the seats, and allies Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk now members of parliament themselves, lobbied strongly to put Yanukovich back in power. After months of political stalemate, Yushchenko accepted Yanukovich as his prime minister in August.

In the intervening months Ukraine has prospered, with the currency up and real estate and banking assets being snatched up by international investors. Oligarchs Akhmetov and Pinchuk are doing well with their fortunes swelling to $4 billion and $2.8 billion (Forbes estimates) respectively. Yushchenko took an important step in wooing the support of the eastern regions of Ukraine where many of the oligarchs are based by naming billionaire Vitaliy Hayduk as part of his team. The rebalance of alliances excluded Tymoshenko who does in fact have a positive relationship with Hayduk and his partners.

Tymoshenko is used to biding time. In 2001, she had fallen out with the sitting government, leading to her arrest and later dismissal; in the 1990s she was accused of siphoning money in her position as head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine and stepped down. Then as now, she waited for propitious timing to make a comeback. With Ukraine balanced on the edge of a knife, Tymoshenko is ready.

Tatiana Serafin is a senior reporter for Forbes and co-editor of Forbes Billionaires.