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Ukraine's PM noticed for iron will and hairdo

She was once the target of gas traders
April 6, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
On a typical day she may chair a cabinet meeting, visit coal miners or fly to Brussels for a summit.But before she steps out of her home, she sculpts her rich blond hair into a peasant-style braid. Only then does she become the prime minister every Ukrainian can instantly identify.

The hair is the high point of Yulia Tymoshenko's glamorous image. But she also has a steely, in-your-face resolve. It made her the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought democracy to her country, and four months into her second premiership she continues to fascinate Ukrainians.

To her adoring supporters she's simply "Yulia," selfless fighter for democracy. The hairdo is more than just a fashion statement; it evokes a beloved symbol of Ukrainian identity - the humble, honest peasant.

Her critics say she's anything but humble and honest, seeing her as a corrupt and power-hungry opportunist. She was accused of enriching herself in corrupt energy deals in the 1990s, which earned her the nickname of "gas princess," and was briefly jailed seven years ago on money-laundering charges. (The charges, which she claims were politically motivated, were dropped.)

Her tenacity leads some to call her the Iron Lady, and Tymoshenko herself looks to Margaret Thatcher as a role model. Nowadays, however, Europe is getting used to female leaders - German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finnish President Tarja Halonen, Moldovan Prime Minister Zinaida GreceanFii and Borjana Kristo, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But none rules a country as divided as Ukraine, a former Soviet republic torn between its Europe-friendly west and pro-Russian east.

In that tug-of-alliances, 47-year-old Tymoshenko is with the pro-Europeans. She embraces democracy and Western ways with gusto, promising to turn Ukraine into a prosperous, law-abiding European nation. She put her daughter, Evheniya, 28, through a British school, and says her motto is the Adidas slogan, "Impossible is Nothing."

"Ukrainian politicians must solve impossible problems if they want to see the country happy," she explained in a recent interview with a Ukrainian newspaper.

Born in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, Tymoshenko earned an economics degree and began her career as a financial manager at a machine-building factory in the Soviet era.

The "gas princess" nickname dates from when she and her husband, Olexandr, 47, ran a fuel company that eventually became United Energy Systems, the country's top gas dealer in the mid-1990s, buying natural gas from Russia and reselling it to local and foreign consumers.

Critics accuse Tymoshenko of illegally pocketing huge profits from her United Energy System deals - and of evading taxes - suspicions that led to her brief imprisonment. Pavlo Lazarenko, who was prime minister and Tymoshenko's ally at the time, was convicted of fraud and money laundering in the United States in 2005.

Tymoshenko denies all the accusations, saying her company in fact helped energy and cash-starved Ukraine survive in those chaotic years.

As prime minister, Tymoshenko has become the enemy of the gas traders which, her critics say, are not unlike the one she herself ran in the mid-1990s.

She became an internationally recognized political figure in 2004 following a flawed presidential election, when she rallied hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Kiev's main square demanding that reformist Viktor Yushchenko be declared the winner over a pro-Russian rival.

The Gas Princess became the Orange Princess, and to her most ardent fans, Ukraine's Joan of Arc.

Yushchenko won a court-ordered revote and appointed Tymoshenko as his prime minister in early 2005, but fired her after only seven months in office in a bitter feud.

Tymoshenko didn't give up. Last December she managed a remarkable political comeback, regaining the premiership when her party won the second biggest share of seats in parliament and reunited with Yushchenko's team in a coalition government.

Political analyst Ivan Lozowy says Tymoshenko is simply unstoppable. "She is an incredibly driven person," he says.

Tymoshenko is known as a relentless worker. During her first stint as premier, she kept a folding bed in her office for when she worked late, and says she may use it again.

Western financial analysts praise her anti-corruption efforts. Her drive to clean up the gas trade with Russia plays well with the public, and she has gained further popularity with a program to compensate Ukrainians for the savings they lost due to skyrocketing prices that followed the Soviet breakup. But her measure is stoking inflation.

Meanwhile, she is once again at odds with Yushchenko. She is attacking his latest gas deal with Russia, while he is accusing her of lying and scheming to increase her power. So their power-sharing deal is very shaky.

Tymoshenko says she is confident she will triumph. "We, women in politics, find it difficult," she said recently, "but we feel confident because our position is right."

 

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