KIEV, Feb 22 — Ukraine’s jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko is the most influential female politician to emerge from the former Soviet Union and a persistent thorn in the side of embattled President Viktor Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko, who could be freed after more than two years in prison under a law passed yesterday by parliament, is a hugely divisive figure in Ukraine and has been a prominent pro-European voice in a country torn between rival allegiances to Moscow and the West.
She is loved by her supporters as an unflinching defender of Ukrainian sovereignty and its European future who was ruthlessly punished by Yanukovych for daring to challenge his power.
But for her detractors, Tymoshenko, 52, is an unscrupulous political opportunist with no fixed ideas who became enormously rich in the corruption-stained 1990s and deserves what she got.
A slender, telegenic blonde known for wearing her long hair in an elaborately braided crown, Tymoshenko’s looks belie a steely temperament that has been compared to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s — one of her heroines.
Known at home as the “Iron Lady”, after Thatcher, or simply by the Ukrainian word for “she” — “vona” — Tymoshenko was a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the annulment of elections initially awarded to Yanukovych.
She challenged Yanukovych in a bitterly contested 2010 presidential election, losing in a run-off and then finding herself the target of a string of criminal investigations she claimed were aimed at eliminating her from politics.
She was first arrested in August 2011, then sentenced to seven years in October that year on charges of abusing her power in a 2009 gas deal signed with Russia during her premiership.
Her jailing, which Tymoshenko argued was the result of a vendetta pursued by Yanukovych and his “family” of close relatives and oligarchs, prompted anger in the West and a crisis in Ukraine’s relations with the European Union.
Guiding protests from prison
Seeking to burnish her credentials as Ukraine’s number one champion of EU integration, Tymoshenko said her own fate should not stand in the way of Kiev signing an Association Agreement with the bloc.
When Yanukovych unexpectedly snubbed the deal on November 21 in favour of closer ties with Russia, members of her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party were at the heart of street protests that erupted and demands for her release remained vocal.
Over the next three months, pro-European demonstrators turned Kiev’s iconic Independence Square into a sprawling protest camp. But calls for Tymoshenko’s release became a more peripheral issue as the demonstrations spiralled into a life-and-death struggle between Yanukovych’s forces and a disparate coalition of mainstream and nationalist groups.
Even from her detention in a prison hospital — where she was moved due to serious back problems — Tymoshenko has played a role in the protests, urging the opposition to stay strong and oust her nemesis.
“The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure,” she said in a Saturday interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.
Yesterday, hours after opposition leaders signed a deal with Yanukovych to end the bloodletting and usher in political reforms, parliament overwhelmingly approved a law that would decriminalise the “abuse of power” statute under which Tymoshenko was convicted.
Although he is now politically hobbled, legal experts said Yanukovych still needs to approve the release before it can be accepted by a court.
Analysts say Tymoshenko remains a political force with core support, though even if released she has now been surpassed by opposition leaders such as former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who spearheaded the Independence Square protests.
Tymoshenko was born in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine and in her early career was aligned with power brokers from that region rather than the Donetsk stronghold of Yanukovych.
After rising to prominence as head of a gas utility, she became a deputy prime minister under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma in 1999, but was fired in 2001 after falling out with him. She was briefly imprisoned then on gas smuggling charges that were later quashed.
Her husband Olexander has now taken asylum in the Czech Republic. But their British-educated daughter Yevgenia, who married and then separated from a British heavy rock singer, has become one of the greatest defenders of her mother, with whom she bears a striking resemblance. — AFP