Elegant and well-groomed, sometimes in shimmering white, sometimes in gray, she turns to her supporters squeezed into the few available public seats and calls out a formal salute: “Glory to Ukraine!”
“Glory to our heroes,” they reply, and the peasant-braided former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko takes her seat on the accused’s bench of a Kiev courtroom.
The Tymoshenko trial — or “show” as her critics might say — gets underway.
Tymoshenko will not rise from her seat again until she leaves the court, where she is on trial for abuse of office. She will certainly not stand out of respect for the judge, whom she disdains as a “puppet” in the pay of darker forces.
There are times when the tiny downtown courtroom seems too small a theater to handle the Tymoshenko phenomenon.
The fire and resolve that made her the field-marshal of Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which overturned a rigged presidential election, appear undiminished.
However, she is thinner in the face now and more tired in the eyes. Her lawyers say she is sick. Two weeks of overnight detention in Kiev’s Luk’yanivska prison are telling.
However, it is hard to know who to feel more sorry for: 50-year-old Tymoshenko or the boyish, bespectacled judge, Rodion Kireyev, who has been her target from the first day.
“There’s a joke about a monkey sitting on a branch holding a hand-grenade. They are cutting the branch from under him. ‘My’ judge is the monkey with the grenade on the branch with the saw in his own hands,” she wrote in a “tweet” from the courtroom.
At times, her performance obscures the seriousness of the charge — using her powers as prime minister to push through a deal with Russia in 2009 that, her critics say, saddled the country with too high a price for gas. If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.
She denies the charge. The trial, she says, is a vendetta conducted by the clan of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, her arch-foe and the only person who merits more invective from her than Kireyev.
Many observers see the trial as a miscalculation by the Yanukovych administration, a poorly thought-out move aimed at ending Tymoshenko as a political force during the summer lull before the start of a difficult new political season.
Since being narrowly defeated by Yanukovych in a run-off for the presidency in February last year, Tymoshenko has failed to rally a united opposition around her. She was in the doldrums. However, the trial thrust her back into the headlines and plays to her strong suit, an appetite for political theater.
She thrives on the fray, has inexhaustible energy and holds a burning conviction that she alone can save Ukraine from what she describes as the “criminal” leadership of Yanukovych.
She has already pulled off a notable success. The US and the EU, whose support Ukraine needs for economic recovery, have expressed concern about what looks like a politically driven trial. They would like her to be released from detention.
Even Russia, not always on the same side as the West over Ukraine, has spoken out against the trial and defended the gas deal. Yanukovych has so far refused to intervene.
Playing the victim is what Tymoshenko does best. When the judge placed her in police custody on Aug. 5, she declared: “You might as well shoot me now. Give her [the prosecutor] a revolver.”