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Tymoshenko: Ukraine's iron lady behind bars

11 october 2011, 16:20
Yulia Tymoshenko in the court in Kiev. ©RIA Novosti
Yulia Tymoshenko in the court in Kiev. ©RIA Novosti
Ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose trial was concluding Tuesday, has combined feminine charisma with hard-edged pragmatism for over a decade in the macho world of Ukrainian politics, AFP reports.

But the woman known in Ukraine as the "Iron Lady" after her heroine Margaret Thatcher, or as just "Vona" ("She"), has had to draw on all her reserves of steel after going on trial for abuse of power after her 2010 presidential election defeat.

The court placed her under arrest on August 5, and ever since she has been held in the Lukyanovsky detention centre in Kiev, a far cry from the halcyon days when she headed the government and rubbed shoulders with world leaders.

But even as a prisoner, she has still somehow managed to show up at her court hearings dressed immaculately, with her trademark golden hair braid, as ever, intricately knotted on her head.

She has portrayed her trial as a "political lynching" led by the man who defeated her in the 2010 presidential elections but who she helped humiliate in the pro-Western 2004 Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yanukovych.

The charges relate to a deal for gas imports she signed with Russia in 2009 which prosecutors say exceeded her powers and caused a $200 million loss to the Ukrainian budget.

"Yanukovych is returning Ukraine to 1937," Tymoshenko said defiantly Tuesday during a break in her sentencing in reference to the worst year of the Stalin-era purges.

"This process and the judgement, ordered by Yanukovich, shows the weakness of the authorities."

She likes to cast herself as a firmly pro-Western politician and the saviour of Ukraine's European future, compared with Yanukovych's more pro-Russian leanings. In public she now always speaks in Ukrainian.

But she has repeatedly shown a capacity to shed her political skin according to changes in the political landscape, leading critics to accuse her of being above all interested in clinging onto power.

She built up good relations in office with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the nemesis of the Orange Revolution, and in 2009 seriously contemplated a political alliance with Yanukovych who is now her arch-foe.

Her last stint in office did little to endear her to Ukrainians as she seemed to revel in a sometimes farcical falling out with then president Viktor Yushchenko as the economy lurched from one disaster to another.

After helping lead the pro-democracy Orange Revolution and serving as prime minister, she set her sights in 2010 on the top job of president but lost out in a bitterly personal contest to Yanukovych.

She stayed uncharacteristically silent for days after losing in the final round vote in February 2010, apparently already sensing that the consequences of her defeat would be more than just political.

Within months of losing the election, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation and her current trial was just one of three criminal probes looming over her.

She has already witnessed the imprisonment of several former top allies in similar investigations, including her former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

"All authoritarian regimes are built on fear. It is very important to be able to cope with fear," Tymoshenko told AFP in an interview earlier this year.

"I am not a monster without emotion. I have fear like any other person. But you can master it."

Born in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, Tymoshenko won prominence and allegedly huge wealth in the chaotic 1990s as head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, which imported Russian gas.

One of her mentors from that era was former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who helped her build up the business and is now jailed in the United States for embezzlement and money laundering.

Tymoshenko became a deputy prime minister under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma in 1999 but was fired in 2001 after falling out with him.

In a dramatic sequence of events, she was then briefly imprisoned on charges of forgery and gas smuggling. The charges, which she says were politically motivated, were quashed in 2005 in mysterious circumstances.

Her businessman husband Olexander, whom she married as a teenager, was implicated in the same scandal and spent a year in jail and then two more years hiding from the authorities.

Both Olexander and their daughter Yevgenia -- who in 2005 married British hard rock musician Sean Carr and shares her mother's glamorous looks -- have been at her side in the trial.

"I know, mum, that you are a strong person," Yevgenia said in an open letter to her mother. "Probably stronger than me, dad and grandma put together."

"But for me, you are my little, beloved mum."

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