Jail threat fails to bend Ukraine's Iron Lady


IN A PRISON cell in Kiev, pondering the prospect of another seven years behind bars, Yulia Tymoshenko must take heart from the memory of previous battles won.

Ukraine’s glamorous former prime minister faces a long stint in jail if a court rules that a gas-supply deal she signed with Russia, in 2009, was so detrimental to her country’s interests that it constituted an egregious abuse of office. A verdict is expected next week.

But this is not the first time the 50-year-old, now the firebrand leader of Ukraine’s opposition, finds herself in a tight spot. And she has a knack of emerging from them victorious.

Tymoshenko was born in November 1960, in Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city of a million people in central Ukraine, which, from the second World War until 1987, was closed to foreigners because of its role as a research and construction centre for missiles and space rockets.

Her father, Vladimir Grigyan, abandoned his wife, Ludmila Telegina, and their only child when she was three years old, but Yulia did well enough at school to earn a place at Dnipropetrovsk University, where she studied economics.

It was around this time that, according to an often-recounted story, a young man in Dnipropetrovsk, called Oleksandr Tymoshenko, dialled a wrong number. Yulia Telegina answered; they talked, arranged to meet and then began to see each other regularly. In 1979 the couple married, and the next year their first and only child, a girl named Yevgeniya, was born.

In the dismal days of early 1980s Ukraine, when the Soviet Union was lurching towards collapse under a series of ailing leaders, the Tymoshenkos raised their daughter while continuing their studies and holding down a series of jobs.

Yulia reputedly shifted tyres in a factory before exploiting the kind of opportunity that presented itself to bright, determined and well-connected young Soviet people when Mikhail Gorbachev started liberalising the economy, in the late 1980s.

With Oleksandr, who was the son of a local Communist Party boss, Yulia opened a series of video “salons”, where entertainment-starved locals could watch recent Hollywood films for a small fee.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, she moved on to become general director of a firm called Ukrainian Petrol, and her rise to prominence gathered pace.

Tymoshenko’s official biography makes no mention of how much more profitable this enterprise was than renting videos but notes that her fuel business “was directed towards what society needed most at that time – it was 1991, the year of collapse for huge state and economic structures, of inflation and the almost instant death of Ukrainian agriculture”.

In 1995, with her husband and his father, Tymoshenko turned Ukrainian Petrol into United Energy Systems (UES), which soon grew into Ukraine’s main importer of natural gas from Russia and became a multibillion-dollar concern.

Business in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s was ruthless, and few sectors were tougher than energy, but in this macho and often brutal world Tymoshenko flourished. It was here, thriving in the cut-and-thrust, that she grew wealthy and laid the groundwork for her political career.

The success of the so-called Gas Princess was not unalloyed, and when Tymoshenko moved from business into big-time politics her past would often be a burden. She first ran for parliament in 1996, and easily won a seat for the party led by Ukraine’s then prime minister, Pavel Lazarenko, a powerful associate from Dnipropetrovsk who was heavily involved in UES.

When Lazarenko found himself facing corruption charges after falling out with Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, he fled to the US, where he was eventually jailed for money laundering, fraud and extortion.

Lazarenko’s party collapsed and Tymoshenko formed a new one, in 1999, called Fatherland. That year, under pressure at home and abroad to tackle corruption, Kuchma appointed a respected politician, Viktor Yushchenko, as prime minister and made Tymoshenko one of his deputies.

Her task was to bring some order to the corrupt energy sector from which she had emerged, but, the way she tells it, she was too good at her work.

By ending shady practices by big business she increased state revenue from the energy sector but also trod on powerful toes, prompting Kuchma to try to neutralise her with allegations that she and her husband forged customs documents and smuggled gas while at UES.

Tymoshenko was released after spending several weeks in jail, but her husband remained in hiding for two years until charges against him were finally dropped.

This spell behind bars, in 2001, helped change the public’s perception of Tymoshenko, from suspicious Gas Princess to corruption-busting Iron Lady, a monicker that chimes with her admiration for Margaret Thatcher.

She became a powerful speaker and delivered fiery denunciations of Kuchma and his oligarch allies in Ukrainian rather than Russian, the language she spoke growing up and which people in western Ukraine associate with shady tycoons and the Kremlin’s baleful influence.

She also dyed her brown hair to the colour of wheat and began tying it in a striking braid around the top of her head. The style at once linked her to rural Ukraine and added a note of softness and tradition to this sharply dressed, fiercely determined woman who was taking on the biggest beasts of male-dominated Ukrainian politics.

The braid, dappled with snow, became a symbol of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when she and Yushchenko brought millions of people on to freezing streets to protest against a rigged election won by the surly Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s favoured candidate.

When the election was rerun Yushchenko triumphed, and he made Tymoshenko his prime minister. They pledged to crush corruption, modernise the economy, break Russia’s traditional hold over Ukraine and lead the country towards membership of the EU.

But, within weeks, the dream began to fade. Amid rumours of fierce rows, Yushchenko sacked his premier after less than eight months in office. Later they tried to repair their Orange coalition and rekindle the optimism of the revolution, but their alliance again failed and fell apart.

Tymoshenko says she did her best during her second spell as prime minister, from 2007 to 2010, but was forced to fight both an economic crisis and an obstructive president. Yushchenko has accused her of incompetence and of placing personal ambition over national interest.

Yanukovych watched his ratings rise as the Orange Revolution imploded until, last year, he narrowly beat Tymoshenko to the presidency in a broadly free and fair election; Yushchenko, without Tymoshenko’s charisma to burnish a dismal record, took barely 5 per cent of votes.

Tymoshenko did not have to wait long for what she calls Yanukovych’s revenge for the humiliation of the Orange Revolution. Several members of her former cabinet were quickly charged with corruption and mismanagement, and then the prosecutors came for her.

She calls her trial a “political lynching”, and EU leaders have warned Yanukovych that relations will suffer badly if his nemesis is jailed. But whether at liberty or behind bars, no one expects Ukraine’s Iron Lady to slip quietly into political oblivion.