Yulia Tymoshenko is yet to clearly lay out her plans for the future, but there are signs she may intend to move into the Ukrainian president's office. Experts say she may just have a chance of succeeding.
A heartfelt speech in Kyiv's Independence Square, an interview on CNN, and a resolute address before the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Dublin were all part of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's return to the political stage. Following her recent release from prison, she emerged as one of a handful of spokespeople for the opposition movement that toppled the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko is certainly back, but the exact role she plans to play in Ukraine's politics remains unclear. "I will use all my strength," the leader of the pro-Western Fatherland Party said at the EPP meeting in Dublin on Thursday (06.03.2014). In her interview on CNN, she described herself somewhat vaguely as someone who is "also responsible here."
Stephan Meuser, the head of the Kyiv branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, said he saw two possibilities for Tymoshenko's political future.
"One is that she'll be seen as a 'mother of the fatherland,' who is politically experienced, and she will attempt to influence which government and president emerge from her position of party leader," he said.
The other possibility, Meuser added, is that she wants to be the next president of Ukraine. The election is scheduled for May 25, and Tymoshenko is yet to rule out entering the race. But one of her potential rivals, former boxing world champion and founder of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform Vitali Klitschko, recently revealed she had told him of her intention to run. Klitschko has made no secret of his intention to run for president.
Paving the way for her return
Some observers believe Tymoshenko is holding back on an announcement until she is sure she is physically fit enough for the travails of the office. The 53-year-old leader of the Orange Revolution was imprisoned for two and half years, and has chronic back pain. She makes public appearances with a wheelchair or a walker. After the party congress in Dublin, she flew to Berlin for an operation. Her determination to speak in Kyiv's Independence Square and travel to Dublin show her resolve to shape the future of Ukraine.
When it came time to form an interim government, Tymoshenko didn't make any claims for the post of prime minister, an office she has already held. But that doesn't mean she has nothing to say in the current government.
"She evidently had an influence on the appointment of various governors," Meuser said. "In Ukraine those aren't such important positions because the governors are appointed by the government in Kyiv. Some were chosen from the center and east of the country, and can effectively be considered her fellow party members."
Winning voters' trust
But despite being seen as an icon in the West, Tymoshenko is regarded by many in Ukraine as an extremely controversial figure.
"There is a lot of mistrust towards her," Steffen Halling, a Ukraine expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said of the popular mood in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko earned a lot of money in the 1990s with her gas business, which some critics have described as shady. Should the crisis worsen, some people may be prepared to cast aside their misgivings. "There's a need for experienced political figures who have good connections in the West, as well as with the Russian elite," said Halling.
Tymoshenko has both, at least to a greater extent than her current potential opponents.
"During the gas crisis, she was the one who could reach an agreement with Putin," Halling said. Moreover, the Russian president suggested more than once "that he can work better with Tymoshenko than with other representatives of the Ukrainian elite."
"There is also his famous macho remark that Yulia Tymoshenko was the 'only man in Ukrainian politics,'" he added.
At home, Tymoshenko and her party also have a solid voter base. The bulk of their support, Meuser said, comes from the center of the country and from male voters in the over-45 age group, with the exception of those in eastern Ukraine who tend to favor closer ties to Russia.
According to a study from the Center for Social and Market Research in Kyiv, Tymoshenko doesn't currently have quite the support she would need to win a presidential race. The survey found more Ukrainians prefer the "chocolate king" and former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko as president - he earned his reputation selling cocoa beans and sweets manufacturers. Klitschko placed second in the poll, followed by Tymoshenko.
The relationship between Klitschko and Tymoshenko is characterized more by competition than friendship, and as a result the current coalition between the Fatherland Party and Klitschko's party could become fragile, Halling said.
He pointed out, however, that Ukraine's future won't be decided by the presidential election alone.
"After returning to the old constitution and curbing the powers of the president, one would also have to give some serious consideration to the new parliamentary elections as a way to increase the legitimacy of the government," he said.