Isn't the 1st time Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine had to fight to regain power

Yulia Tymoshenko has made a career out of parlaying ordeals into opportunities.

When the Soviet Union's collapse saddled Ukraine with crippling fuel shortages, Tymoshenko plugged her energy distribution enterprise into the right political connections and became a millionaire.

Corruption allegations got her arrested and fired from a top government job in 2001, but she clawed her way back, rousing revolution out of a country yearning for change.

Now, a month after Ukrainian president and Orange Revolution confederate Viktor Yushchenko fired her from her coveted prime minister post, Tymoshenko is plotting another comeback.

"They think they can destroy my authority and credibility with the people, their trust in me," Tymoshenko said, curling a half-smile and narrowing her gaze. "The opposite will happen. In the March elections, the people will be on our side. "I think I will become prime minister."

The fiery, telegenic Ukrainian has a knack for getting what she wants and doing whatever it takes to get it. She was 30 when she set up her first moneymaker--making and selling pirated videos. By the time she was 36, her energy company, United Energy Systems of Ukraine, or UESU, had become an $11 billion enterprise.

Now 44, she has reached the top tier of Ukrainian politics and is a media darling on both sides of the Atlantic. Forbes magazine recently ranked her the third most powerful woman in the world, behind U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi.

Her public appearances draw wild shouts of "Yulia!" from adoring Ukrainians. Her role as the inspirational force behind last year's Orange Revolution had made many Ukrainians forget her previous life as one of the country's oligarchs.

Recently, however, her popularity has taken a body blow with her firing from the prime minister post after just eight months and the swirl of corruption allegations that accompanied Yushchenko's government house-cleaning Sept. 8.

Tymoshenko is confident that she can win back Ukrainians' trust. But as she prepares for parliamentary elections in March that will shape Ukraine's future government, a larger question looms:

Can Tymoshenko, Yushchenko and what remains of the splintered Orange Revolution camp resurrect public confidence in a movement that has lost so much credibility since the Independence Square demonstrations last winter?

"The damage was huge," Tymoshenko said, "especially the damage to people's souls--the people who stood on Independence Square for the sake of the revolution. . . . This is a big tragedy."

An endless stream of politicians and power brokers heading into her party headquarters on Kiev's Lesya Ukrainka Boulevard on a recent afternoon suggests her campaign to climb back into power is in full swing.

Her sense of image-building is as strong as ever -- she still wears her long hair in a braided ring that crowns her head, the same Ukrainian peasant girl look she strove for during last year's demonstrations.

Visitors ushered into an anteroom to await appointments are greeted by a large poster showing Tymoshenko handing out roses to a police cordon during the Orange Revolution. The poster's caption reads: "Beauty will save the world."

"Our team will fight for the possibility to form the government. We perceive these positions not as a goal, but as an instrument to realize the ideals of the Orange Revolution," Tymoshenko said during a recent interview at her office. "I don't want people's trust in government to die."

Tymoshenko grew up in Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city of 1.1 million and the hometown of several other political heavyweights, including former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Leonid Kuchma, the authoritarian ruler Yushchenko replaced.

The daughter of Lyudmyla, a dispatcher, Tymoshenko was raised by her mother in a khrushchovka, the nondescript tenement housing Nikita Khrushchev built across the Soviet Union during the 1950s.

Started as Economist
After graduating from a city university, she began work as an economist. Then in 1990 she received from her father-in-law two videocassette recorders that she set up in her living room to produce pirated videos, according to Matthew Brzezinski's 2001 book, "Casino Moscow," which devotes a chapter to Tymoshenko.

Later, Tymoshenko, her father-in-law and her husband, Oleksandr, discovered a far more lucrative niche.

In the early and mid-1990s, Ukraine's economy was mired in an energy crisis, largely because the Soviet-era fuel distribution network it had with Russian suppliers disappeared with the country's independence in 1991.

When longtime Tymoshenko family ally Pavlo Lazarenko became deputy prime minister--and later prime minister--in the mid-1990s, he ensured that Tymoshenko's UESU cornered nearly a third of Ukraine's gas imports market.

As a result, UESU eventually assumed control of 20 percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product, Brzezinski wrote. The company is now defunct.

"She was Lazarenko's protege, and she benefited from this," said Oleg Ivantsov, deputy chief editor of Kiev's Dyen newspaper.

Kuchma forced Lazarenko out of office in 1997. Three years later, Lazarenko was charged in the U.S. with money laundering and transportation of stolen property--an indictment that named Tymoshenko and UESU as being involved with Lazarenko in allegedly laundering millions of dollars in the mid-1990s.

U.S. authorities never charged Tymoshenko. In June 2004, a federal jury in California convicted Lazarenko of money laundering and extortion charges. He is to be sentenced later this year.

Before Lazarenko's departure, Tymoshenko had turned her attention to politics. She won election to parliament in 1996 and in 1999 teamed with Yushchenko for the first time, becoming his deputy prime minister for fuel and energy while he was Ukraine's prime minister.

Neither Tymoshenko nor Yushchenko lasted long in their jobs. Tymoshenko angered her energy sector rivals, introducing reforms that forced them to collectively pay $2 billion in taxes. Kuchma, who was president at the time, fired Tymoshenko in January 2001.

A month later police arrested her on charges of fraud and money laundering. She spent 42 days in jail awaiting trial; later that year the charges were dropped.

Yushchenko's 16-month stint as prime minister ended when parliament fired him in April 2001. He went on to form Our Ukraine, a party that garnered the largest share of the vote in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

Tymoshenko took her politics to the streets, organizing rallies that called for Kuchma to step down. A Sept. 16, 2002, demonstration drew tens of thousands of Ukrainians to the capital; tens of thousands more rallied in other Ukraine cities that day.

Uneasy Pilitical Allies
Although never entirely at ease with each other, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko decided to band together for Yushchenko's presidential bid last year.

And when it became clear that authorities within Kuchma's regime had rigged the election to ensure that Kuchma's handpicked successor, Viktor Yanukovych, won, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko rallied Ukrainians to Kiev's Independence Square in protest.

Onstage in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators, Yushchenko was the authoritative voice of reason--Tymoshenko was the impassioned general revving up the troops for battle. When she ordered Ukrainians to form human blockades around key government buildings, thousands complied.

"She has natural charisma that makes it possible for people to believe her easily," said Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies.

Five weeks of protests in frigid weather culminated in Yushchenko's victory in a repeat runoff election Dec. 26. Yushchenko selected Tymoshenko as his prime minister Jan. 24, repaying her for her role in the revolution. Within weeks, fissures in the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko team appeared.

Tymoshenko wanted wholesale revisions of privatizations of state-owned enterprises during the Kuchma era. Yushchenko urged a measured approach, calming Ukraine's investment community with assurances that only about a dozen privatizations would be scrutinized.

The trigger for Tymoshenko's firing appeared to revolve around her push to return to the state a metals plant Kuchma's son-in-law, oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, had obtained in a 2003 privatization widely regarded as rigged.

Pinchuk accused Tymoshenko of targeting his plant solely to ensure it was eventually controlled by his rivals, a charge Yushchenko believed had merit.

Tymoshenko denied the allegation and accused Yushchenko's circle of advisers of trying to resurrect an image of Tymoshenko the oligarch--cunning, ruthless, power-hungry.

"I haven't been doing business for years, and all of Ukraine knows this," Tymoshenko said. "The campaign against me is based on the notion that 10 years ago I was very powerful. In a span of five years, I created the most powerful company in post-Soviet space. The memory of that exists, of course."

The scandal has scarred the image of the Orange Revolution and its principals. A poll last month by the Kiev-based think tank Razumkov Center found that less than a quarter of Ukrainians support either Yushchenko or Tymoshenko.

Nevertheless, some analysts say Tymoshenko has the political wherewithal to win enough votes in the parliament elections. A constitutional change that becomes effective in January makes those elections crucial; the amendment shifts key authority from the president to parliament, including the power to select a prime minister.

Tymoshenko is confident she can muster the votes to become prime minister again. Yushchenko would still be president, though, raising the prospect of further stalemate and chaos as the post-revolution government totters into its second year.

"The question is about compromise, and her ability to put up with being in the role of Person No. 2," said Pogrebinsky of the Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies. "She has always been Person No. 1--she has always looked at herself this way."
By Alex Rodriguez, Tribune foreign correspondent, Chicago Tribune
Action Ukraine Report

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