‘I know there has been hostility but my mother is a hero’
Published in The Independent (3rd March, 2014)
Yulia Tymoshenko is in a wheelchair, suffering severe pain from her back and looks frail, but her daughter Eugenia is just thankful she has been freed from jail after nearly three years of torture.
In dramatic scenes nine days ago, the braided heroine of Ukraine’s last revolution a decade ago and the country’s former Prime Minister was released after a vote in parliament. She rushed to Kiev’s Independence Square to give a passionate speech to the protesters who won her freedom.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, her daughter – who stood behind her mother as she addressed the crowd – said the day was ‘like a surreal dream.
‘I was amazed she went straight there,’ she said. ‘But it was the right decision to say thank you to the people and ask forgiveness for the mistakes of all politicians and the mistakes she made.
‘We have seen the wisdom of the people. She wanted to underline all this.’
Eugenia said it was the culmination of the most stressful 24 hours of her life. Her mother was held in Kharkiv, a stronghold of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, and her family feared for her life amid the violence of his overthrow.
‘I knew the regime would stop at nothing and think nothing of spilling more blood so until I saw my mother I was very worried.’
Their legal team flew to collect her, while Eugenia prepared Plan B to drive nearly 300 miles by car. ‘When I saw her at the airport in Kiev I was so relieved – I still can’t believe it is real.’
She said her mother spent an emotional few hours with her own mother, who is 76 and she had not seen since being jailed, before going to the grave of the first protester killed in the square then returning to the political struggle.
Eugenia refused to say if her mother will stand again for office. But she is almost certainly gauging the possibility of a successful tilt at power.
Her allies including the interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, were given key posts in Ukraine’s new government. Success hinges on how they grapple with Russia’s invasion of Crimea; Yulia herself rapidly issued a five-point action plan in response to the threat.
‘My mother is working full-time to ensure the most just outcome for all Ukrainians, to get financial help for the country and to get new elections,’ said Eugenia. ‘She does not place much importance on her own position.’
Yet the truth is the response to her mother’s return has been mixed; many Ukrainians want new leaders given the scale of corruption and incompetence that has blighted their nation.
Eugenia, 34, sipped lemon tea as we talked in her mother’s office in a Kiev suburb last week. Outside, the walls were hung with photographs of the former Prime Minister greeting crowds and meeting army officers.
The only time Eugenia paused was when I asked if she really wanted her mother back in the front line. She sighed, then said: ‘I know it is her mission, the fight of her life.’
For all her mother’s fame and wealth, accrued in the gas industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she endured a tough time after being jailed on what many believe to have been trumped-up charges of abusing her power in office.
She was put in a constantly-lit cell with no heating or hot water, forced to take cold showers as the freezing Ukrainian winter arrived and placed under 24-hour surveillance.
‘Can you imagine the psychological pressure she was under every day?’ says Eugenia. ‘She was under such strict conditions in an isolated cell with male guards watching her.’
She claims to have beaten by her guards and went on three hunger strikes. Although in great pain from suspected herniated discs and struggling to move, she was refused painkillers and only moved to hospital after the intervention of German doctors.
Eugenia said it was devastating when finally allowed to visit her mother. ‘Every time I saw her it was so painful, witnessing her in those terrible conditions. She was going through such humiliation and torture. They would not even let us take food to her.’
Since being released, the woman who won power after the Orange Revolution has talked by telephone with the US Vice-President Joe Biden and met Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief who visited Ukraine last week. Reports claimed she was flying to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, who is known to respect her – even reputedly calling her ‘the only man’ in Ukrainian politics. Her office denied the stories.
Eugenia, who was educated in England, spent time at the Maidan protests and has close friends who were badly injured in the clashes. One almost had his leg amputated after being shot; others were savagely beaten by security forces.
‘For four years beforehand we were wondering ‘Why did people not see what was going on?’ Then it was a relief that people started the protests against the government. It was a long struggle but should not have been done at such a terrible cost.’
Her daughter admits she remains worried about her mother. She is aware also there has been unsympathetic coverage around the world since Yulia’s release. ‘I know there has been hostile press – it looks well-organised to me. But I am convinced by her real heroism.’
‘It is good people can criticise without being killed or kidnapped,’ she added. ‘My mother said she understands the people don’t trust politicians. But we should remember many politicians joined the protests and stood there shoulder to shoulder with them.’
Now, like many in Ukraine, both mother and daughter say they want real change in their country – unsurprisingly, since the new government said last week $37 billion (£22 billion) went missing from state coffers under the deposed regime.
‘Whatever politicians do must be controlled and checked by the people,’ said Eugenia. ‘That is what it really means to be European.’