The woman in white

Observations on the Ukrainian elections

On the last day of campaigning before the parliamentary elections, Yulia Tymoshenko stood on a stage in Kiev's St Sophia Square and prepared to lead a prayer for her country. Thin beeswax candles, like those placed in front of religious icons at St Volodymyr's Cathedral, are handed out to the crowd. Dressed in white, and with a choir behind her, she began:

"Today in the presence of the Lord I would like to repent for all the authorities, for all the politicians who have mocked the people from above."

Ever since her party arrived at the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, dressed exclusively in white, the former prime minister has tirelessly cultivated a public image of herself as a force of light and purity, shaping concerns about corruption and Russian influence into an epic campaign narrative of good versus evil.

Her strategy has worked, since in last weekend's voting the Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko party claimed the largest gain of the big three.

Her campaign circumvented political advertising laws by creating non-branded television commercials. Tapping into the nation's tradition of mysticism, her ads used predictions and images from Nostradamus, the Bulgarian psychic Wanga, and the Russian prophet Pavel Globa, claiming that a "white lady" and "warriors of light" would soon arrive in the Ukraine and "gain the power".

In August, the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting managed to ban the Pavel Globa advertisement, but was unable to block the others from being aired.

"We struggled to find a law that applied to it," said Nataliya Lygachova, of media-monitoring organisation Telekritika, and a member of the expert panel that reviewed the advertisements.

In election campaign posters, Tymoshenko has dressed as the sword-wielding hero of a Russian blockbuster, beside the phrase "Get out of the darkness everyone!" Her latest campaign poster, freely handed out at the party's many white tents, showed her in a white leather cosmonaut suit suspended in space next to a satellite, with the slogan "Ukrainian Breakthrough".

In a country that has only recently seen western political advertising, Tymoshenko's stunts have created strong reactions.

"She's Hitler in a dress, but my daughter loves her because she looks like Barbie," said one woman.

Tymoshenko's TV ads and posters are augmented by a broad populist campaign, which included a visit to Margaret Thatcher in Britain on 21 September. Ukrainians hold Baroness Thatcher in high esteem for her strong leadership. Many refer to her as the west's Gorbachev.

Western political consultants have also advised Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the villain of the Orange Revolution. His grim Soviet strongman image has been manicured into smiling, western-style leadership, acknowledgment that even Russian-leaning voters have become bored with Soviet political imagery.

"Politicians here tend to present themselves as one of three things," says Irena Karpa, the young face of MTV Ukraine. "There is the general in uniform, the strong-man with a paunch who probably beats his wife after a couple of vodkas, and there is the guy who looks like a Photoshop version of a US president. Tymoshenko does something different."

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever