It is Tymoshenko’s third, and possibly last, time running for president. In 2010, she lost to Viktor Yanukovych, the man who was stopped from taking the presidency in the 2004 sham election. Tymoshenko later served two terms as prime minister, but spent two and a half years in jail on charges of abusing her office, a sentence considered “unlawful and unjustified” by the European Court of Human Rights. When popular protests led Yanukovych to flee to Russia in 2014, Tymoshenko was released from prison and rushed to Kiev’s central square to deliver a speech from a wheelchair. But things did not go according to her plan. She was greeted with placards that read Freedom for Yulia but not Power and audible boos. She lost the 2014 presidential election, receiving fewer than 13 percent of the vote.
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The rest of her recent speech in Sloviansk, furthermore, spotlighted why her candidacy has troubled Western governments. For an hour and a half, Tymoshenko took jabs at Poroshenko over continued unrest in eastern Ukraine—“Someone at the highest level doesn’t need peace or doesn’t benefit from it,” she said—while also blaming Germany, France, and the United States for failing to negotiate peace.
As election day draws closer and Tymoshenko’s onetime lead has evaporated, her rhetoric has grown more and more populist. But beyond budget-busting economic policies and promises of clamping down on graft, it is her remarks about the Minsk deal that have raised worries. The agreement is unpopular with many Ukrainians, who see the accords with Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine as unable to bring peace while also granting legitimacy to Moscow’s control over part of Ukrainian territory. Western countries, however, fear Russia might never sign on to another agreement.
Tymoshenko has said that she “didn’t accept the Minsk agreements from day one,” and that the negotiations had been carried out “behind Ukraine’s back.” Trading on the fact that she is well known abroad and previously negotiated a gas deal with Putin as Ukraine’s prime minister, she has sought to convince voters that she can bring conflict with Russia to an end.
According to Hryhoriy Nemyria, the deputy head of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, the presidential hopeful wants new negotiations on the basis of a 1994 agreement, signed by the U.S., Britain, and Russia, under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet nuclear arsenal. (Zelensky, the election front-runner, has followed Tymoshenko’s lead and committed to pursuing new negotiation formats, though he has provided few specifics.)
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So far, Tymoshenko has stopped short of saying that the Minsk agreements should be scrapped—publicly, at least. Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, told me that when he met with all the major candidates, Tymoshenko included, they committed to maintaining the Minsk accords. Yet at the same time, two Western diplomats and the former representative of an international NGO, all of whom requested anonymity in order to discuss internal conversations, complained that Tymoshenko in private is more equivocal, leaving them guessing about what she would actually do were she elected.