KIEV, Ukraine -- From the Windy City to first lady to charity lady, Kateryna Yushchenko has come a long way. Big ideas, but limited results.
This may make a fitting epitaph for Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, which came to a crashing end with his resounding re-election defeat on Jan. 17. It could also stand for the attempts of his wife, Kateryna, to reinvent the role of first lady as an active public figure.
Now, even in private life, Ukraine’s former first couple remain targets of vehement criticism – a far cry from their status as heroes in the glow of the 2004 democratic Orange Revolution.
A middle-class native of Chicago, Kateryna Yushchenko set out to redefine the role of a Ukrainian first lady. But her best-known project – a high-profile attempt to raise millions of dollars to build a hospital – is gaining more publicity for its failures than anything else. The hospital has yet to be built, amid questions about what happened to the money raised.
Also, her American background naturally led to smear campaigns by pro-Kremlin figures, who accused her of being a spy who manipulated her husband’s inner circle during his presidency.
“There is a level of cruelty, pettiness, crudeness [in Ukrainian politics] that would not be acceptable in Europe, the U.S. or, indeed, in most countries of the world,” Kateryna, 49, told the Kyiv Post in a recent telephone interview. “I was deeply disappointed in how many politicians stooped to these tactics, and how easily the media could be bought and manipulated.”
Kateryna arrived in Ukraine in early 1991 after a typical diaspora upbringing in Chicago. She spoke Ukrainian at home, took folk dancing lessons and attended a weekly Ukrainian-language school and Orthodox Church.
After working in the U.S. State Department, she arrived in Kyiv and co-founded the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, a non-profit organization that strives for democratic development and free market reforms. It still has a local presence in Ukraine.
She met Yushchenko while advising the central bank, which he headed, as part of her work for KPMG, an international audit, tax and advisory firm. They married in 1998 and she left her job in 2000, after the birth of her second of three children.
When her husband became prime minister in 1999, Kateryna came into the spotlight as rumors were spread that she had links to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The allegations reached a crescendo in 2004, when Yushchenko was running for president against Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by then-incumbent Leonid Kuchma and the Kremlin.
After becoming first lady in 2005, Kateryna took Ukrainian citizenship and set about redefining the role of first lady. Whereas her predecessors Antonina Kravchuk and Lyudmyla Kuchma stayed in the background, Kateryna kept a busy schedule, often independent of her husband.
Already active in charity work through her Ukraine 3000 Fund, she launched new projects, the most ambitious of which was to construct an ultra-modern hospital. But the project foundered amid bureaucratic hurdles, a funding hole and, her harshest critics claim, incompetence and even embezzlement.
Opponents say she also tried to interfere in her husband’s running of the nation.
“It’s very difficult to influence my husband [Viktor Yushchenko].This is a person with his own point of view".
“Kateryna influenced Yushchenko’s decisions; she had huge sway over who got appointed to the Cabinet of Ministers. She controlled him more than people think. She was the shadow head of the presidential administration,” said Taras Berezovets, head of Politech PR Group, and an adviser to Yushchenko’s foe, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, during the 2010 presidential campaign.
Vadym Karasiov, a political consultant who advised Yushchenko during his presidency, named Andriy Kyslinsky, a former presidential aide and deputy head of the State Security Service, as one of Kateryna’s Cabinet “appointments.” The association proved embarrassing in 2009, after Kyslinsky was found to have falsified academic credentials.
Oleh Rybachuk, Yushchenko’s former chief of staff who has known the ex-president since the early 1990s, said the first lady had a sort of “kitchen cabinet,” although he downplayed her influence.
“Kateryna had the ability to arrange meetings, but never did it through me and during Yushchenko’s work time,” Rybachuk said.
Other former close associates, such as former presidential chief of staff Viktor Baloha and David Zhvania, who is the godfather to one of their three children, accused Kateryna of meddling.
Kateryna has dismissed such charges in the past.
“It’s very difficult to influence my husband,” she said on Radio Free Europe in 2009. “This is a person with his own point of view. This is a person who understands the economy and politics of our country very well…but when he comes home, the last thing that he wants to hear is my advice on economics or politics.”
Her footprint is most evident in her husband’s nation-building efforts that, for many, smacked of classic diaspora versions of Ukrainian history.
Kateryna said she believes her husband’s promotion of the Ukrainian language, culture and history was more important than politics. “He believes that economic prosperity and higher living standards are only possible in a nation that is conscious, united, democratic, strong and has a common understanding of its history and role in the world,” she said.
She defended her husband’s record, despite his dismal performance in the Jan. 17 presidential election, when he garnered only 5 percent of the vote and failed to make it into a second-round runoff.
“We live, thank goodness, in a democracy. I don’t think I ever really expected that my husband would serve two terms. My husband’s vision and understanding of Ukraine has a very long-term perspective – a rare talent these days, and he did not allow this vision to be obscured by what is controversial today and what will be a matter of fact in five years,” she said.
Viktor Yushchenko has said he will stay in politics, while Kateryna intends to concentrate on her charity work and home life.
Kateryna’s successor as first lady, Lyudmyla Yanukovych, has returned the role to the shadows, shunning the spotlight by appearing only once at the new president’s inauguration.
With Kateryna’s ambitious hospital project slow going, her attempts to break new ground and change the view of what a first lady should be appears to have failed.
“She’s too smart for post-Soviet Ukrainian society,” said Karasiov, the political consultant. “Many in Ukrainian society still have a classic view of gender roles; she was expected to be simply a wife whose place was in the kitchen, and she was supposed to be a derivative of her husband.”