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Has the Tymoshenko Brand Gone Stale?

02/26/2014 05:32 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

2014-02-25-YVR_Maidan.jpg

Two Ukrainian women console each other at a Euromaidan rally in Vancouver Sunday, as fallen protesters are honored in song and speeches. Credit: M Bociurkiw

It was vintage Yulia Tymoshenko.

Just as I had tossed the last of my questions to the then-opposition politician, she clasped my hands, looked deep into my eyes and said that, given my Ukrainian heritage, she expected my article to be nothing less than positive.

It was 2003 and the feisty tycoon-turned politician was on a visit to Toronto to brief Canadian government officials and the diaspora community about her political platform. As any journalist faithful to his craft, I was after answers to my hard-hitting questions on the ailing Ukrainian economy and why she thought foreign investors should overlook the well-known risks and invest in a country mired in corruption and inefficiencies. I left deflated as little of what she proffered was sufficient for copy that would appeal to Wall Street.

I'd sat with Tymoshenko a couple of years earlier and remembered a much sharper and energetic woman who spoke proudly of her efforts to take on some of the most powerful and entrenched business and political interest in Ukraine. During a one-year stint as deputy prime minister for the energy sector, Tymoshenko, leveraging her insider knowledge, managed to dismantle antiquated business arrangements which deprived the national treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Back then, her efforts won her the plaudits of analysts and diplomats alike.

One western diplomat described her to me at the time as "one of the few energetic, dynamic personalities in a political scene full of stoic fatalists."

Fast forward to today, with Tymoshenko just being sprung by a sympathetic Ukrainian parliament after 30 months of incarceration. Her nemesis, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych -- who is apparently on the run in southern Ukrainian after being dismissed by the same Parliament -- is believed to have been behind the trumped up charges that originally put the iconic figure behind bars.

Ironically, Tymoshenko seems to generate more sympathy behind bars than as a free, firebrand politician. At least in jail, she was regarded as a political prisoner who was set up by Yanukovych and his inner circle.

Memories are still raw of the failed promise of the Orange Revolution, when the enigmatic politician teamed up with Viktor Yuschenko to form a dream team of Ukrainian politics. It seemed too good to be true and it was: irreconcilable differences quickly percolated to the surface and the two ended up as despised political foes. While Yuschenko deserves much of the blame for the collapse of the promise of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko's lack of ability to play second fiddle helped doom the arrangement from the start.

As we saw Saturday upon her unexpected release Tymoshenko, tired and frail, is failing to generate the support she once had. She had not even completed her speech at Independence Square in Kyiv before social networks lit up with insulting commentary. It quickly become clear that she had been branded as an old school politician, while the street was now demanding a fresh and trustworthy face.

Said one Facebook post from a young Ukrainian friend in Kyiv, in response to a photo I posted of Tymoshenko on Maidan: "She looks such a fake now, especially after all SHE's done. Just a hysteric woman on the scene..."

There was more bad news for the Tymoshenko brand this week when news footage emerged of her daughter partying it up in Rome in one of the city's most expensive hotels, one day after government snipers began firing on unarmed protesters. The news report ended with a clip of Yevgenya Tymoshenko at the Ukrainian parliament a day after her return, voicing solidarity with protesters. Whatever the circumstances, it was a jaw-dropping lack of judgment to leave the country while the Maidan came under attack.

With the elder Tymoshenko announcing Monday that she will be leaving to Germany for medical treatment it is now clear that she will not be written into the new political narrative. The future appears to belong to younger, untarnished politicians such as former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko. Even Ukrainian rock star, Ruslana, who energized Maidan crowds on an almost daily basis with her motivating speeches, singing and innovative ideas, will own a pivotal place in a new government should she wish for that.

And then there are young people from the street -- such as Volodymyr Parasiuk, a young Maidan protester and self-declared nationalist from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. This is someone who came out of nowhere and with one rousing, from-the-heart speech Friday was able to electrify the crowd far more than Tymoshenko. (As one seasoned Ukrainian anchorman put it: "Your Maidan speech was one of the few that entered my heart.")

To be sure, Tymoshenko has demonstrable strengths. She has the fortitude to stand up to powerful adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. She can also charm western leaders, and I have seen with my own eyes how she can transform a packed hall of elderly members of the Diaspora community into a teary-eyed mass.

Asked today what future role I see for Tymoshenko in a post-Yanukovych Ukraine, I hesitated to answer, knowing how this woman can defy the most sure-footed analysts. With the presidential election campaign scheduled to start this week it may be impossible for her to run as a candidate.

But knowing what I do about Tymoshenko -- think Condi Rice -- a stateswoman-like role who is called upon to mediate crisis situations. For example when Putin decides to punish Ukraine by turning off the gas pipelines.

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