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Yulia Tymoshenko speaking to protesters after her release from prison (c) REUTERS NEWS
Image: Reuters

Ukraine's opposition players

Greg Wiser
February 24, 2014

Having toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's opposition movement is experiencing newfound power. The question now is who will emerge as the movement's leader. DW profiles those poised to take it forward.


Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister

Released Saturday (22.02.2014) after 30 months in prison, Yulia Tymoshenko's rhetorical talents were on full display as she addressed Kyiv's protesters, telling them she will seek the presidency in new elections slated for May. If she succeeds, it would be the latest peak in the 53-year-old's tumultuous political career that began with her election to parliament in 1996. An economist and engineer by profession, she helped lead the 2004 Orange Revolution that overturned Viktor Yanukovych's fraudulent presidential election win. After a brief stint as prime minister in 2005, she was returned to the post under then-President Viktor Yushchenko in 2007. Both she and the incumbent Yushchenko lost in presidential election bids against Yanukovych, who won the post in 2010, amid voter frustration with the country's economy.

The polarizing politician's renewed bid for president will not be welcomed by many protesters. Although longstanding political rivalries with Yanukovych are thought to have played a role in Tymoshenko's 2011 conviction for abuse of power over a gas deal with Russia, some view her as being as greedy and corrupt as the now-ousted president. For example, while serving as head of the EESU power company, she cultivated ties with Moscow and amassed a fortune. In the future, her extensive experience with Ukraine's political class is likely to be an asset - but also a liability, particularly to those protesters seeking to usher in a new era in governing the country.

Oleksander Turchinov and Yulia Tymoshenko speaking to one another (c) Grigoriy Vasilenko
Close allies: Oleksander Turchinov and Yulia TymoshenkoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Oleksandr Turchynov, interim president

Oleksandr Turchynov is associated with playing the role of second in command, but as of February 23, he finds himself at the reins as Ukraine's interim president. A close ally of Tymoshenko's and deputy head of the Fatherland party she leads, he had served as speaker of Ukraine's parliament before succeeding Yanukovych as acting head of state. Like Tymoshenko, the 49-year-old was born in the eastern industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk and also entered parliament in the late 90s. He went on to serve as deputy prime minister under Tymoshenko from 2007 to 2010. Seen as far less charismatic and less politically ambitious than his chief ally, he has also published novels and served as an evangelical preacher.

Though Turchynov played a behind-the-scenes role in fueling the opposition movement that ousted Yanukovych, the close parallels between his career and that of Tymoshenko's make him suspect to protesters seeking a new political class. After his appointment Sunday as interim president, around 200 showed up to oppose the move with signs saying the protest movement was not carried out for Tymoshenko's sake.

Vitali Klitschko, opposition leader

For those outside Ukraine, Vitali Klitschko has emerged as the most recognizable face in the country's opposition movement, thanks in part to his long-standing success in the boxing ring. But the 42-year-old former world heavyweight champion is no stranger to the political arena. He has long publicly criticized Viktor Yanukovych, serving in the mid-2000s as an advisor to former President Viktor Yushchenko and mounting two unsuccessful bids for mayor of Kyiv in the following years.

Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk speaking to one another (c) ITAR-TASS / Stanislav Krasilnikov
Opposition heads Vitali Klitschko (l) and Arseniy YatsenyukImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Klitschko now heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, which has enjoyed success with Ukrainian voters with its platform aiming to eliminate corruption. As protests gathered steam, the former boxer was seen as the opposition movement's most likely presidential challenger up until Yulia Tymoshenko's release from prison this weekend. Though his party had announced his ambitions for the country's top post late last year, he told the BBC Sunday that his "main goal is not to take the chair of president." That may be a nod of deference to the far more seasoned Tymoshenko's capacity to unify the various opposition forces.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, opposition leader

Like Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk has also emerged as one of the most visible and influential leaders of the opposition movement in recent weeks. The seasoned 39-year-old politician is a member of Tymoshenko's Fatherland party and serves as both its parliamentary head and chief negotiator during the protests. Trained as a lawyer, the former Ukrainian foreign minister shares the pro-EU stance of Klitschko and Tymoshenko.

Given the prominent role he has taken on in the opposition movement, it's possible that his popularity will ultimately surpass that of fellow party leader Tymoshenko. As the protests flared, ex-president Yanukovych offered Yatsenyuk the role of prime minister, with Klitschko as his deputy, in a bid to appease protesters. Yatsenyuk and Klitschko both came out against the proposal, with the Fatherland politician saying the protests would persist until all demands had been met.

Oleh Tyahnybok speaking at a rally (c) Efrem Lukatsky/AP/dapd
Oleh Tyahnybok heads the rising nationalist Svoboda partyImage: dapd

Oleh Tyahnybok, opposition leader

Among the opposition movement's most controversial leaders is the Svoboda (Freedom) party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, whose party has played a key role in orchestrating and supporting the anti-government movement. The nationalist, right-wing Svoboda surprised many observers when it became Ukraine's fourth-largest party in parliament following polls in 2012. The party campaigns on promoting traditional Ukrainian values and culture, and its 45-year-old leader has faced condemnation in the past for remarks seen as anti-Semitic and racist. The controversial stances for which Tyahnybok stands reflect divisions within the opposition movement that lie beneath its overarching goal of toppling the Yanukovych-led government.