Ukraine continued to be a cyclone of political action on Saturday, as President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down and former leader Yulia Tymoshenko emerged from the shadows of a three-year imprisonment. Parliament voted today to remove Yanukovych from office, release Tymoshenko from prison and hold new elections on May 25th.
Many analysts have expressed concern that Ukraine will split in two, but Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University is confident that will not happen. Contrary to the widely held belief that the Russian speaking eastern provinces are the economic engine of Ukraine, Motyl called the east a “rust belt,” explaining that it is actually dependent for its economic survival on the west, thus the east’s constant threats of secession are empty.
Yanukovych’s base of support is primarily among Russian speaking easterners. The now former president and his supporters have declared today’s decisions by Parliament to be illegitimate. “They are trying to scare me,” he said, calling the events of the day banditry and a coup d’etat, and insisting he would neither resign nor leave the country.
One of the biggest forces motivating protesters to spend the Ukrainian winter camped out on Independence Square was widespread anger over corruption in the Yanukovych government. Many of the protesters are supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine’s pro-European former leader, known for her trademark crowning blonde braid, emerged from the shadows of a prison hospital today. Her release was among protesters’ demands and one of the decisions passed by Parliament today.
Tymoshenko rose to prominence during the 2004 Orange Revolution. She and her ally at the time, Viktor Yushenko, led massive peaceful protests against the election which brought Yanukovch to power, but which Tymoshenko and Yushenko claimed was rigged.
Tymoshenko was educated in Russia where she studied engineering and economics. During the early post-Soviet 1990s, she took the reins of a gas company, and became quite wealthy, which earned her the nickname “gas princess.” She moved into politics in 1996. A deputy editor with Ukraine’s Pravda newspaper, Sergei Leshchenko, claims Tymoshenko entered parliament to avoid prosecution for alleged financial misconduct.
Since the 1990s, Tymoshenko has been in and out of power. In 2004, as a result of the Orange Revolution, she became Prime Minister. She ran for president against Yanukovych in 2010 and was narrowly defeated. Her supporters claimed the election was rigged, but no proof was ever found.
Tymoshenko has energetically campaigned against government corruption in Ukraine. But in 2011, Yanukovych had her jailed for abuse of power. Her supporters have considered her a political prisoner. She was originally held at Lukyaniviska prison, but was transferred to the hospital prison in Kharkiv for treatment of chronic back pain.
Outside of General Clinic Number Five, in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Yulia Tymoshenko’s petite and elegant daughter, Eugenia Tymoshenko, awaited her mother’s release from the prison hospital. In defense of her mother, Eugenia asserted that Yanukovych had spent a fortune hiring auditors to comb through her mother’s finances, and still failed to uncover a single penny’s worth of corruption or power abuse.
Dozens of people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured during the protests on Independence Square. But it appears the movement has triumphed. Perhaps the release of firebrand leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, will also signal Ukraine’s emergence from the shadows into a brighter future.
By Melissa Roddy