As the Conservative Political Action Conference prepares to gavel in a few weeks from now, turmoil in Ukraine provides a surprisingly appropriate backdrop to the meeting. That’s because Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who was just sprung from her politically-motivated prison sentence this past weekend, was honored at the 2007 CPAC for her work as a leader of the Orange Revolution.
That was six years ago, but even at the time, a Cold War paradigm loomed large. “During her speech, or it might have been just before her speech, the fire alarm went off,” recalls Lisa De Pasquale, who was CPAC director at the time of Tymoshenko’s visit in 2007. ”We were sort of joking, you know the Russians were trying to mess up our banquet.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s now-acting president, was also in attendance at the event, according to sources. (Christian Josi, the former executive director of CPAC, arranged Tymoshenko’s attendance and accompanied her to the event. Josi, who has written for TheDC, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Very little documentation exists about the visit, but according to the Ukranian Weekly, on March 2, 2007, Tymoshenko, then the Ukrainian opposition leader, received several standing ovations at the Ronald Reagan Banquet of the Conservative Political Action Conference:
“‘In recognition of her commitment to freedom and democracy in Ukraine,’ John Fund of the Wall Street Journal presented her with a large, leather -bound portfolio containing three original proclamations signed by President Reagan — two honoring Captive Nations Week, and one commemorating the victims of the Great Famine in Ukraine.
“When the ovation of the more than 2,000 guests had died down, Ms. Tymoshenko thanked the hosts, saying that she was accepting the honor ‘as a sign of your respect for my country, Ukraine, which I love with all my heart.’
“Citing President Reagan’s inspirational call in Berlin — ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ — she said that is what the Orange Revolution did and is continuing to do.”
She’s back. And in recent days, Tymoshenko has been the focus of several stories which some observers see as sexist. Clearly, she has been portrayed as calculating, and I suppose there will be speculation that someone willing to hire an image consultant to rebrand herself might be capable of co-opting The Gipper’s image in order to seduce American conservatives to cheer her on.
“Don’t let her looks fool you,” writes Christopher Dickey at the Daily Beast. “The woman of the moment in Ukraine, whose crown of braided golden hair is calculated to evoke mythical memories of rural strength, has always been a better icon than a politician.”
According to Edward Lucas, “When she needs it,” Tymoshenko “is prepared to use her undeniable sexual magnetism.”
“I have seen her shriek and curse in terrifying eruptions of rage,” he continues, “the kitten turns into a tigress.”
And maybe a tigress who will claw her way back on top?
Though plagued by allegations of corruption, her incarceration had more to do with her rivalry with pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Now, to those viewing the protests in Ukraine — and the revelations that Yanukovych maintained a lavish home with a private zoo – Tymoshenko’s alleged past sins may pale in comparison.
“Beginning in 1973 when Ronald Reagan first spoke at CPAC,” says De Pasquale (who is also the author of a new memoir), “CPAC has been ahead of the curve in embracing up and coming leaders and freedom around the world.”
So who knows? Maybe Tymoshenko will go on to become an icon of freedom. If so, CPAC will have something big to celebrate this year.