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Ukraine: Capable Or Crooked? Yuliya Tymoshenko Leaves Few Unmoved

Admired by her supporters as a charismatic leader and castigated by her opponents as a corrupt turncoat, Ukraine's Yuliya Tymoshenko leaves few people indifferent. Now, Tymoshenko, who does not mince words, says she expects to be Ukraine's next prime minister.

Prague, 5 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- She has compared herself to Joan of Arc and called outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma a "red-haired cockroach."

But Yuliya Tymoshenko can turn on the charm and win over an audience -- even in enemy territory -- as she demonstrated with a recent visit to the eastern city of Donetsk.

At the height of opposition demonstrations in Kyiv in December 2004 that forced a rerun of the presidential election, adoring crowds dubbed her the "Orange Princess."

Tymoshenko portrays herself as a tough-talking crusader, a passionate Ukrainian nationalist, and woman of the people who is on a mission to clean up the country's morass of government and business corruption.

It has been an amazing transformation.

A decade ago, Tymoshenko had no nationalist credentials. In fact, she spoke no Ukrainian and had no more than a pragmatic interest in politics. A trained economist from the eastern city of Dnipropetrivsk, she used her connections to former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko to build a natural gas trading empire that made her the country's richest businesswoman -- until her ambitions ran up against the designs of President Leonid Kuchma.

RFE/RL regional analyst Jan Maksymiuk explains: "In the 1990s, Tymoshenko was generally perceived as one of the most powerful oligarchs in Ukraine. Reportedly, in 1996, when she was the chairwoman of Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems, her company controlled one-fourth of the Ukrainian economy. But then she got into conflict with other oligarchs who were supported by Kuchma, and her career as a businesswoman ended."

While her career as a businesswoman may have been cut short, she proved more deft than Lazarenko, who had to step down. He ended up fleeing the country, only to be tried and convicted on 29 extortion and money-laundering charges in the United States, which he is now appealing.

In 1999, Tymoshenko joined the new reformist cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko and turned against her former business partners with a vengeance. Tymoshenko was credited with forcing Ukraine's energy sector to pay back some $2 billion into state coffers and stripping the oligarchs of some of their power.
"No doubt she's a pragmatist. But she's also a very passionate and determined pragmatist, and whatever she sets her eyes on, she goes for it in a big way."

Soon after she left the government in 2001, her legal troubles began. She was indicted on fraud and money-laundering charges and jailed for several weeks. A Kyiv judge eventually dismissed the charges against her.

Still, questions remain over what happened to Tymoshenko's share of the Unified Energy System profits.

"Nobody knows for sure. At one time, she was indicted for channeling more than $1 billion dollars abroad to foreign accounts. Some of those accounts were controlled by the infamous former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. She was also indicted for gas smuggling, tax evasion, and a lot of other crimes. But she was able to shake off all those allegations. Everybody believes that she's a very rich person in Ukraine. But apparently, she doesn't pursue any business activity right now," Maksymiuk says.

Observers say Tymoshenko's short time in prison and the destruction of her business empire by Kuchma's allies -- which she calls politically motivated persecution -- had a profound psychological impact.

While such events might have crushed weaker personalities, Tymoshenko used them as a springboard to forge a new identity as an opposition crusader and born-again nationalist advocate, complete with traditionally braided hair and flawless Ukrainian.

So who is the real Tymoshenko? Cunning business woman or genuine reformer?

That has yet to be determined. But one thing is for certain. She is one of the smartest public figures in Ukraine and has always been fiercely determined to attain her goals -- be they in business or politics.

"No doubt she's a pragmatist. But she's also a very passionate and determined pragmatist, and whatever she sets her eyes on, she goes for it in a big way -- in a very determined, systematic, and effective way," says Kataryna Wolczuk, a Ukraine analyst at Britain's University of Birmingham. "So from that point of view, when she was a 'gas princess,' she did it in an extremely competent way -- milking the system to the extent it was possible under Lazarenko. When she became the deputy prime minister and tried to deal with the system which was created in the mid-1990s, again she was extremely competent and effective. And she trampled on many vested interests in Ukraine. So, in a way, she is a pragmatist, but whatever she does, she does it without compromising, and that's perhaps her greatest strength. But from the outgoing regime's point of view, it's the greatest threat she presents to them."

Tymoshenko told The Associated Press that she has a formal agreement with Yushchenko that leaves no alternative than for her to become prime minister after he is inaugurated as the country's new president.

Wolczuk says this demand poses a dilemma for Yushchenko. She is more than competent, but her polarizing nature means it could be difficult for the Yushchenko camp to win enough support among former Kuchma backers, who fear her.

Ironically, says Maksymiuk, Tymoshenko could also prove a threat to Yushchenko himself -- especially if reforms that cut the president's powers are enacted as planned.

"In the longer term, yes. If Tymoshenko becomes prime minister and if the political reform goes into action, as it is planned in 2006, then, of course, Tymoshenko could become the most powerful figure in Ukraine. So, that's perhaps why she's willing to be prime minister," Maksymiuk says.

Yushchenko's office has so far declined to say who will be nominated for prime minister.

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