Five years ago she was a driving force behind the Orange Revolution that ousted Ukraine’s proRussian Government and swept a new nationalist coalition to power. Now Yuliya Tymoshenko has given warning that the country could break up, as its new President embraces the Kremlin once more.

In an exclusive interview with The Times, Mrs Tymoshenko said that Ukraine’s independence and stability were being put at risk by Russia’s dash to strike energy and security deals with President Yanukovych. She accused the President of conspiring with Moscow before his election in February to sign away control of key industries. "For the first time in 19 years of independence, the question is the preservation of the country itself, its political sovereignty."

She said that there were rising tensions over the Crimea region after Mr Yanukovych approved a controversial deal to allow Russia’s Black Sea fleet to remain in Sevastopol for up to 30 years after its present lease expires in 2017. In exchange, Russia agreed to reduce gas prices for Ukraine by 30 per cent. Mrs Tymoshenko, 49, who lost narrowly to Mr Yanukovych in the presidential election, said that the new treaty was opposed by half of Ukraine’s people. "There is a serious threat of instability if such a substantial group is dissatisfied," she said. "I think Yanukovych is intentionally destabilising the situation in the country but I don’t know why. The situation in Crimea is quite seriously destabilised now. People have begun to collect signatures in favour of unity between Crimea and Russia. An activation of anti-Ukrainian movements is taking place in Crimea."

Much of Crimea’s population is pro-Russian and senior figures in the Kremlin have suggested that Moscow should reclaim the territory, which was transferred to Ukraine as recently as 1956 by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Mrs Tymoshenko said that President Medvedev had ordered Russia’s Defence Ministry to prepare investment plans for Crimea. "Now Crimea will be developed under the auspices of the Russian Federation, which is difficult for society to understand. It creates the risk of a crisis. I am in favour of mutually beneficial co-operation. However, I do not allow the thought of a loss of part of our territory or of a loss of sovereignty."

She urged the United States and Europe to pay greater attention to Ukraine’s survival, rather than viewing the country as "a bargaining chip" in international relations with Russia.

"When Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] it received guarantees that its territorial integrity would be protected. I would like to believe that these guarantees are still in force."

On a two-day visit to Kiev this week Mr Medvedev signed several new agreements with Mr Yanukovych at the seventh meeting since the latter succeeded Viktor Yushchenko, Mrs Tymoshenko’s co-leader of the Orange Revolution. Mr Medvedev, who had denounced Mr Yushchenko as anti-Russian, told journalists: "Finally, there is a worthy Ukrainian partner."

Mrs Tymoshenko said that the speed of Kremlin proposals for joint ventures in nuclear energy, shipbuilding, aviation and the possible merger of Ukraine’s gas company with the Russian energy giant Gazprom had taken everyone by surprise. While she favoured good relations with Russia, it was "better that such co-operation provides more opportunities for Ukraine than depriving it of the few remaining ones".

Mrs Tymoshenko suggested that she would not have extended the Sevastopol lease, saying that the region had huge financial potential as a tourist resort. "If the choice is between a world-famous holiday destination and a military base, then I choose the former."

She is facing a personal threat to her liberty after prosecutors reopened a 2003 criminal investigation into claims that she tried to bribe Supreme Court judges. Mrs Tymoshenko is not a member of parliament and no longer has immunity since resigning as Prime Minister in March.

Her allies say that the case is baseless and that the investigation is a wider message to opponents of the new regime. One senior adviser told The Times: "If they can go after the biggest opposition figure, then it is a way of saying to everyone else that they had better stay silent."

Volodymyr Sivkovych, the Deputy Prime Minister, underlined the threat, declaring recently that Mrs Tymoshenko and her supporters "will have no time to get a seat in parliament but will be thinking of how to flee".

Mrs Tymoshenko, in an elegant black dress with her blonde hair in its trademark peasant-style braid, looked relaxed and confident despite the evident pressures on her. She claimed that democratic freedoms gained five years ago were being swiftly eroded, with mounting restrictions on press freedom and opposition demonstrations. "The Orange Revolution’s values are being reversed very quickly. I would like governments of other democratic countries to notice this. Today in Ukraine we have a rolling back of democracy, a destruction of the rule of law and the beginning of repression against the opposition."

Of the investigation against her, she said: "These are difficult circumstances. One can’t become used to it or not pay attention to it. But I know for sure that I need to defend Ukraine because half of Ukraine still trusts this politician."

Last week she joined other forces opposed to Mr Yanukovych to establish the People’s Committee to Defend Ukraine, a protest movement that, it claims, will protect the country’s "sovereignty and territorial integrity". Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, dismissed the campaign as "hysterical and hopeless".

Mrs Tymoshenko, however, accused the new Government of devaluing Ukraine’s national interests, adding: "What we are doing now is consolidating that part of society that is ready to confront and oppose these processes."

Tony Halpin, Kiev

BYuT press office

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