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Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko fighting her biggest battle

The ambitious leader is polling behind her main rival in Sunday's presidential election. But many expect Tymoshenko, who fought her way up from humble origins, to at least take the battle to a runoff.

January 17, 2010|By Megan K. Stack

Reporting from Kiev, Ukraine — Yulia Tymoshenko has fought her way out of poverty, out of jail, out of standoffs with Russia. She's fought in the streets and in parliament; through communism, post-communism and a messy, primordial democracy.

Admirers and detractors alike tend to say one thing about the Ukrainian prime minister with the golden braid wound like a crown over her brow: Tymoshenko knows how to fight.

And now her biggest battle is heading for a climax as Ukrainians go to the polls today to elect a new president.

If the election has managed to generate some suspense among a disillusioned and economically depressed public, it's largely because of the ambitious Tymoshenko.

She's consistently polling behind her main rival, Viktor Yanukovich, but many analysts predict that the pair will compete in a runoff next month. Even if she surprises observers by losing outright in the first round, she will stay in the thick of a looming tug of war for control of parliament and the Cabinet.

Familiar with her relentless upward mobility and ability to turn powerful acquaintances to her advantage, many here are reluctant to discount Tymoshenko.

"I don't think anybody in the country knows what she really thinks," said Andriy Shevchenko, a lawmaker in Tymoshenko's BYuT alliance. "She is so creative and inventive in her moves that she surprises a lot of people."

Her political foes are less charmed.

"When she needs something, she uses everything to get it. She uses forbidden things," said Anna German, a leader of Yanukovich's party. "She has no values that she can't betray to get power."

Few would deny that Tymoshenko has proved adroit at shifting her rhetoric to suit political necessity.

She grew up in a Russian-speaking region and didn't learn Ukrainian until she was entering politics as an adult. Today she vows that Ukrainian will be the sole national language of Ukraine.

Back in 2004, when anti-Moscow sentiment peaked amid the tumult of the Orange Revolution that brought a pro-Western leader, Viktor Yushchenko, to power, the fiery Tymoshenko was applauded by the West as she led the charge against Russian interference.

Today Tymoshenko speaks urgently of the need to restore ties with the mighty northern neighbor. She flew to Moscow in the dead of last winter, met privately with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and emerged with a settlement that restored natural gas flows to a shivering Europe -- not to mention an improbable (albeit vague) campaign endorsement from the pinnacle of Russian power.

The shift in tone has led some analysts to believe that Tymoshenko has come to a quiet understanding with the Kremlin. The camp of outgoing President Yushchenko has charged that Moscow is holding incriminating information over her head in exchange for compliance.

Her relations with Yushchenko, who survived a mysterious poisoning and stood at her side during the heady days of the Orange Revolution, has dissolved into squabbles and paralyzing dysfunction.

Tymoshenko's supporters wave aside accusations of collusion with Russia. In a country historically linked to Russia, they say, frosty relations are both unpopular and impractical. Her allies criticize Yushchenko for antagonizing the Kremlin.

"Putin and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev were so disappointed with Yushchenko that she had a very good background to start with," Shevchenko said. "They were ready to communicate with anybody."

The Kremlin was seen as backing Yanukovich in the 2004 elections, only to see him driven out in disgrace. This time, Russia has been more conservative.

"In 2004, Russia made a stupid mistake by putting all their eggs in one basket," said Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. "Now they are being very careful."

Tymoshenko represents the strongest chance for pro-Western sentiment to remain in the Ukrainian leadership.

She has been an unabashed supporter of Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union, and has encouraged the country to work toward membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Tymoshenko's efforts to find footing between Moscow and the West mirror the larger existential struggle of this post-Soviet country. Most Ukrainian politicians are keenly aware that there are too many pro-Russian voters to risk alienating Moscow, and too many pro-Western voters to shun Europe.

And Tymoshenko is not known for misreading the mood of a room, or a nation. Her biography is a tale of gutsy reinventions.

Tymoshenko was born to an impoverished family in the Dnipropetrovsk region; her father abandoned the family, and her mother raised her alone from a young age.

She studied in local schools, married a man with some connections in local politics and opened a video rental store before edging into the field of oil and gas. She befriended local strongman and future Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, and with his backing started United Energy Systems of Ukraine, importing Russian gas.

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