Ukraine's Freed Ex-Leader Yulia Tymoshenko Can't Shake Enrichment Suspicions

Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s ex-premier freed Saturday as the tide turned against her nemesis President Viktor Yanukovych, is a steely and telegenic figure hailed by the opposition — but also a polarising one dogged by suspicions of personal enrichment and opportunism.

After Ukraine’s parliament on Saturday abandoned Yanukovych and ordered her release from a seven-year sentence for “abuse of power” she had been serving since 2011, Tymoshenko made it clear she would remain Yanukovych’s arch-foe in word and deed, hounding him as she rode the opposition’s triumph.

“The dictatorship has fallen,” she said in a statement upon her release.

Her many supporters see her as an alternative to Yanukovych, rallying to her prominent pro-European stance in a country torn between rival allegiances to Moscow and the West.

But for her detractors, Tymoshenko, 53, is an unscrupulous political opportunist with no fixed ideas who became enormously rich in the corruption-stained 1990s and deserved what she got when she was sent to prison.

A slender blonde known for wearing her long hair in an elaborately braided crown, Tymoshenko’s looks belie an unbending temperament that has been compared to that of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — 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 controversial 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 battle zone, where fierce clashes between protesters and police have left dozens dead this week.

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 recent interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.

As Yanukovych’s regime appeared close to collapse after a peace deal was reached on Friday, Tymoshenko was back in the spotlight.

On Saturday, parliament overwhelmingly voted for her to be immediately released and two of her close allies were named interim interior minister and speaker of the parliament.

Analysts say Tymoshenko remains a political force to be reckoned with, though she may now have 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.

Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.

This post originally appeared at Reuters. Copyright 2014. Follow Reuters on Twitter.

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