In Ukraine, A Daughter Takes Up Her Mother's Cause

Feb 4, 2012

Evgeniya Tymoshenko has her mother's looks — minus the trademark blond braid that makes her mother, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, quickly recognizable.

But the younger Tymoshenko says she's not a politician. She never imagined herself testifying on Capitol Hill, getting face time with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a prayer breakfast, or speaking to reporters at a K Street lobbying firm.

"I had to start participating in this process since my mother's arrest, actually, and I became her public defender since August; and I was able to see the really shameful process against her and other ex-politicians, opposition politicians," Evgeniya Tymoshenko says.

The United States has described the case against Yulia Tymoshenko as politically motivated. She served twice as prime minister, first for a brief period in 2005, and then from 2007 until 2010.

But after losing the presidential election in 2010, she was prosecuted for her role in negotiations with Russia over gas sales when she was prime minister. She was convicted last October and has been sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tymoshenko's daughter says she's being held in harsh conditions.

"Her cell is always lit 24 hours a day and she's under video surveillance, which they say is for her own safety but it's obviously just to put more psychological pressure on her," Evgeniya Tymoshenko says.

Though the 31-year-old worries about her mother's health, she says the former prime minister won't be broken, and is even winning over her prison guards.

"Her fiery character and her courage, political courage is what charges people to fight for their rights; and that's what happened during the protests she organized," she says.

Rise To Power

Back in 2004, Tymoshenko did whip up the crowds to protest fraudulent elections in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

She seemed an unlikely reformer, having amassed a fortune in the 1990s in the shady energy sector. A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer says there were lots of questions about her then.

"I remember having a conversation with a Ukrainian in 2000 or 2001, and I said, 'Explain to me how you see Yulia Tymoshenko.' And the response was, 'Well, maybe she stole her millions already, but she actually now appears to want to do something good for the country. She wants to give something back,' " Pifer says.

Pifer, now with the Brookings Institution, says that in recent years the U.S. has worked well with her, and credits her with cleaning up Ukraine's energy sector.

But now, a man she bitterly opposes, Viktor Yanukovich, is president, having defeated her two years ago. Pifer says Yanukovich might be pursuing the case against her because of personal animosity, but it's backfiring.

"Her poll ratings were single digits, her party was in single digits, and she was kind of off the radar screen," he says. "What's happened with the trial last year is they've now sort of put her back on the front page, so it's had this ironic effect in terms of bringing her back in the spotlight."

And it's made Ukraine's relations with the West more complicated, because the case is seen here as one of many examples of backsliding on democracy. The picture Tymoshenko's daughter is painting sounds like a new Stalinist regime in Ukraine.

"I know that my phones are tapped and that somebody is watching me wherever I go," she says. "Obviously I feel pressure because my relatives, even my grandfather, is under investigation now."

Still, Evgeniya Tymoshenko, who spent nearly a decade in London and married a British rock singer, plans to stay in Ukraine and fight for her mother's cause. Her father received political asylum in the Czech Republic.

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