KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has refused to concede defeat in a clash for the presidency with opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, is a former gas magnate whose rhetoric electrified the 2004 “Orange Revolution.”
The 49-year-old says she is the sole guarantor of democracy in the ex-Soviet republic and has promised to clean up corruption and move closer toward Europe while keeping good ties with Russia, a trading partner and supplier of energy.
Tymoshenko shot on to the world stage with her impassioned speeches in the 2004 mass protests against the sleaze of a post-Soviet establishment in which Yanukovich was painted as a pro-Moscow stooge and chief villain after he won a rigged poll.
In the campaign for Sunday’s vote, she used her energy and sharp tongue to ridicule her opponent’s poor education and decry the support he enjoys from the industrial tycoons in the east.
“There is a majority of people in the country who are ready to vote for a democratic country without criminality and oligarchy in power,” she said after coming second to Yanukovich in a first round of voting on January 17.
“As a presidential candidate I will never allow the country to return to the path that it was on in 2004,” she said.
Many economists see her as a populist with an emphasis on strengthening a state safety net, while her policies have been described as ad hoc state interference, such as fixing price controls for petrol and food to keep inflation down.
Her call for a review of thousands of privatized assets that she said were sold to oligarchs on the cheap — much as in Russia during the 1990s — spooked investors who wondered whether any business would be secure from the state.
In the end, she succeeded in reselling just one asset — a steelmill to ArcelorMittal for $5 billion.
She has repeatedly lashed out against corruption in the gas sector and has accused Russia of trying to gain control of Ukraine’s gas transit system to use as political leverage.
She herself, however, is reported to have made millions in the 1990s as president of a company that was for a while the main importer of Russian natural gas. That earned her the nickname of the “Gas Princess.”
She built better ties with Moscow as the Kremlin increasingly took against President Viktor Yushchenko, whom she helped to power in the “Orange Revolution” but of whom she is now a bitter political foe.
Always stylishly dressed with a trademark peasant-style hair braid, Tymoshenko’s combative style and sheer drive bring her either devout followers or enemies.
After the success of the “Orange Revolution,” her relationship with Yushchenko soon fell apart — she was twice his prime minister — and he devoted as much time to trying to undermine her campaign as he did Yanukovich’s.
Billboards in Kiev show her looking sideways beneath a slogan that says: “Choose a new path for Ukraine.”
Born in 1960, in Russian-speaking Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, Tymoshenko studied at the local university, married while still a teenage student and had a daughter in 1980.
Taking advantage of an entrepreneurial climate in the Soviet Union under leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Tymoshenko’s first taste of self-made money came from a video rental store she set up.
She soon crossed into the energy sector and went on to become head of Unified Energy Systems.
She entered parliament in 1996 and was made a deputy prime minister in 2000 by the new premier — Yushchenko.
Both, however, fell victim to political intriguing under President Leonid Kuchma. Yushchenko was sacked as premier, while Tymoshenko spent several weeks in jail on corruption charges. She was cleared of those charges.
On leaving prison, she changed her image from that of a plain, dark-haired woman. Her hair became lighter and she took to wearing the braid and designer outfits.
Her stylist later told media the folksy look was designed to distance herself from an association with wealth and to emphasize a national Ukrainian identity.
About 13 years ago, having set her sights on a political career, she began to improve her Ukrainian and now speaks it fluently on the campaign trail even when she is in Russian-speaking regions.
Writing by Richard Balmforth