By Matthias Williams and Sergei Karazy
KIEV (Reuters) – Pointing at a man hanging on a rope while fitting insulation onto a building across the road, Ukraine’s most famous soldier sometimes wishes she had such a life, earning money with an exciting job without having to think about politics.
Instead, straight after spending nearly two years in solitary confinement in a Russian prison cell, Nadiya Savchenko has dived into a career in parliament, hoping to use honesty and plain speaking to fight corruption and end a separatist war.
“In the army, you believe that your friend watches your back, whereas here you understand that it’s every man for himself and nobody believes anyone else,” she said in an interview with Reuters on a bench outside her party’s headquarters, where she smoked almost continuously.
“It’s like I’m in an aquarium full of sharks, but I’m also a small piranha.”
A 35-year-old helicopter pilot, Savchenko was captured during a mission to rescue wounded soldiers during a battle with Russian-backed rebels. She was spirited across the border and jailed on what Ukraine said were trumped up charges.
A Russian court sentenced her to 22 years in jail after finding her guilty of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists covering the fighting in eastern Ukraine. She denied any involvement but many in Russia saw Savchenko as a nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.
Her nickname among fellow soldiers was “bullet”, and her steely defiance while on trial, which included hunger strikes and showing a Russian judge the middle finger live on TV, turned her into a hero back in Ukraine.
Made a lawmaker while in captivity, Savchenko was returned in a prisoner exchange in May, at a time of growing frustration among Ukrainians that too little has changed since the 2014 Maidan protests brought a pro-Western leadership to power.
Her presence could be a thorn in the side of President Petro Poroshenko. One of Ukraine’s richest men, Poroshenko promised to end the conflict in the Donbass region within weeks, but two years on, the violence has killed more than 9,000 people and a ceasefire is barely holding.
Savchenko was given a parliamentary seat by Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister now head of the opposition Fatherland party. Tymoshenko leads public opinion polls and could win in the event of a snap election, fuelling speculation that she and Savchenko may become rivals.
“I don’t want to scare anyone,” Savchenko said, asked if Poroshenko and other politicians could view her as a threat.
“I want people to understand, the old politicians of the old school to understand, that Ukraine now needs reforms, not only in every sector, but in politics. They must understand this and feel that a reset is needed — to allow young blood.”
Encouraged by Ukrainians who wrote letters to her in prison, Savchenko may run for president in 2019.
While welcoming a Minsk ceasefire agreement brokered between Ukraine and Russia, she disagrees with key aspects of the deal, including giving eastern Ukraine more autonomy and holding local elections in the Donbass. She caused controversy by offering to hold direct talks with the separatists.
“I am prepared to become president of the Ukrainian people when they are prepared not to sell their votes,” she said.
“If I feel that I am sufficiently qualified and that there are enough people who don’t just shout “do it,” but do it with me — it’s possible, even at the next presidential elections.”
PAPERBACKS, NOT DOSTOYEVSKY
Savchenko was captured during a rebel ambush in June 2014. First her captors thought she was a sniper and she says she was threatened with rape. But they then realized they’d captured an officer who was already a minor celebrity as a woman pilot.
Prison was tough. She was denied contact with other prisoners and believes many of the letters sent to her were withheld by the prison authorities.
She wanted to read books by classical Russian authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the prison library, but was allowed only cheap paperbacks, as Dostoyevsky was seen as too serious and liable to cause her to harm herself.
She was aware that solitary confinement could drive prisoners to insanity or suicide within six months. Watching the war through the prism of the Russian TV news channels filled her with rage, but said she channeled her anger to survive prison.
Savchenko doesn’t want revenge but says Europe must understand that Russia under President Vladimir Putin wants to drag the continent back into the 15th century. If Europe and the United States don’t stand up for Ukraine, she says, Poland and Germany could suffer the same fate.
With a reputation for being fiery and unpredictable, Savchenko knows she will have to be more careful with her choice of words as a politician. She still sports a crew cut, misses the camaraderie among the troops, but on Friday had swapped her combat fatigues for pants and sandals.
Is there a danger that lawmakers will ride on the coat-tails of her fame or manipulate her?
“I have the energy of a 15-year-old and the physical health of a 35-year-old and the wisdom and life experience of a 90-year-old,” she said.
“I’m not so stupid and it’s not that easy to manipulate me. I don’t remember this happening in my former life. Commanders said that I was unmanageable, unpredictable and they often had a big problem with this. I’ll be the same for the politicians.”
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)