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Who’s Afraid of Yulia Tymoshenko?

Which two Ukrainians most detest Yulia Tymoshenko, most fear her, and most obsess about her?

It’s the two Viktors, of course: Yushchenko and Yanukovych.

Most Ukrainians have very strong opinions about the former prime minister turned political prisoner, but it’s only the two Viktors who’ve let their feelings about her become borderline psychotic.

In the last three years of his presidency, 2006 to 2009, Yushchenko abandoned whatever reform aspirations that may have guided him during the Orange Revolution and concentrated almost exclusively on squabbling with and attacking Tymoshenko, never passing up an opportunity to denounce her, regardless of whether his audience was listening or cared. I personally witnessed him bore two roomfuls in New York with hour-long attacks on Tymoshenko: the first group consisting of some 50 potential American investors who wanted to hear about Ukraine’s economy; the second, of some 100 Ukrainian-Americans who wanted to hear about Ukraine’s culture.

Just as Yushchenko let his obsession with Tymoshenko define, and ultimately destroy, his presidency, so too has Yanukovych. After she lost the presidential election of 2010, Tymoshenko was washed up as a national politician. All Yanukovych had to do to keep her that way was to ignore her. Instead, by persecuting Tymoshenko, by jailing her at precisely the time that he’s ostensibly courting Europe and hoping to negotiate a gas deal with Russia, he’s given her the ethical stature she never had, undermined his standing at home and abroad, sabotaged Ukraine’s attempts to integrate more closely with the European Union, and provided the Kremlin with additional reasons for stonewalling Kyiv. Like that other Viktor, this one has let his obsession with Tymoshenko define, and ultimately destroy, his presidency.

So what gives? Although Yanukovych has moved toward many of Yushchenko’s positions in the last year, the fact is that the two are profoundly different presidents. Yushchenko was, despite his multitudinous faults, significantly more pro-democratic, pro-Ukrainian, and pro-market than the unabashedly anti-democratic, anti-Ukrainian, and anti-market Yanukovych. They are also very different politicians, with Yushchenko preferring the safety of a podium and Yanuovych preferring the safety of a designer suit.

Why would two such different policymakers share the same fear and loathing of Tymoshenko?

I suspect it’s because they’re the same kind of guys. It’s not Tymoshenko the politician they hate, but Tymoshenko the too-strong woman who knows they’re both pushovers and treats them as such. After all, Yushchenko knows how to deal with male enemies. He bores them to death or, as in the case of Yanukovych, cuts a deal with them.
Yanukovych’s approach is even simpler, and usually involves a sock to the jaw. Neither approach works with Tymoshenko. She can run rhetorical circles around Yushchenko and knock Yanukovych off his leaden feet.

Tymoshenko, as the strong woman of Ukrainian politics, has exposed both fellas for the vain weaklings they really are. When Yushchenko lost his charms after being poisoned and disfigured in the summer of 2004, Tymoshenko not only threatened his authority and standing as president. She also threatened his manhood and his sense of self as a ladies’ man. Moreover, she didn’t fall for his act precisely because she wanted what he only half-wanted: power. And she never failed to pursue it, for better or for worse, while Yushchenko never failed to let it slip out of his fingers.

Yanukovych is an even more transparently self-doubting male who is also burdened with the sense of inadequacy that comes from being a hoodlum-turned-honcho. Hence the big mouth and big talk and big fists. Hence the absence of women in his prime minister’s cabinet. When wife Ludmilla went off the deep end during the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych could respond only by banishing her to Donetsk. When political opponent Yulia claimed that he was a thug and a crook during the 2010 presidential campaign, he could respond only by banishing her to a jail. Small wonder that his leading female cheerleader, Hanna Herman, gets big bucks for her efforts.

Self-confident politicians and self-confident men would have treated Tymoshenko as just what she was—a strong-willed, tough, and ruthless politician—regardless of her sex. But neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych can, evidently, see past that. And that obviously drives both fellas crazy, to the point of preferring political suicide to rational policymaking.

Tymoshenko’s inevitable comeback will be a traumatic defeat for both Viktors. When the queen bee returns, expect both of them to take up bee-keeping full-time.


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