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The ups and downs of Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko

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Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was born in Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine. Today, however, she is more readily associated with the part of Ukraine that cherishes its old traditions, and promotes the national culture and language.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was born in Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine. Today, however, she is more readily associated with the part of Ukraine that cherishes its old traditions, and promotes the national culture and language.

Though she was defeated by Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential elections, Tymoshenko remained his main political opponent. Whatever official statements are being made today, few truly believe that Tymoshenko’s high-profile criminal case has no connection to politics. In fact, Europe makes a direct link between Tymoshenko’s fate and the future of Kiev-Brussels relations.

Tymoshenko embarked on a career in business in the 1980s-90s in Dnepropetrovsk by opening a video rental business, which became highly popular during the later perestroika times. But she soon shifted her area of focus to petroleum products instead: in 1991, she became director general of the Ukrainian Petrol Company, and in 1995, president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine.

Energy became Tymoshenko’s forte; she was crowned the “gas princess” and a “billion-dollar-woman,” an allusion to the fantastic revenues that were available on the energy resources market.

However, she was not able to enjoy these fruits for long. Her business ran up against some problems and was eventually “taken away from her,” as she later put it. It was then that she decided to go into politics. She had a strong sponsor, Pavel Lazarenko, the underground godfather of Dnepropetrovsk. In 1997, Tymoshenko was elected to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament).

But trouble awaited her in politics as well. In 1999, she became deputy prime minister for fuel and energy in Viktor Yushchenko’s government, but her work in that post annoyed a number of influential politicians and business leaders. She soon fell into disgrace. In August 2000, her husband, Oleksandr, was arrested. He was one of the senior executives at United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the corporation that Tymoshenko used to head. In January 2001, she herself also faced charges of smuggling, forgery and abuse of office. She was fired, then arrested, and spent a month in remand prison.

As an opposition politician during the tenure of President Leonid Kuchma, Tymoshenko soon found herself among Viktor Yushchenko’s followers, while her leadership qualities eventually made her one of the prominent leaders of the Orange Revolution.

Her triumph would have been decisive had it not been for one fly in the ointment – the newly elected president unexpectedly changed his mind about making Tymoshenko his prime minister. But Tymoshenko fired back quickly. She released a confidential document to the public in which Yushchenko had made a commitment to appoint her to head the cabinet in the event of his victory. With that, he was compelled to make good on his promise.

Still, her career did not proceed smoothly after this. Tymoshenko’s cabinet, appointed in February 2005, was already dissolved in September as a result of the escalating stand-off between the various groups in Yushchenko’s entourage.

Fallen from grace once more, Tymoshenko was again forced to start over.

The 2006 parliamentary elections in Ukraine was the first vote organized under the amended constitution. The new edition redistributed part of the president’s powers in favor of parliament and the parliament-appointed cabinet. (Yanukovych reversed these changes when he became president in 2010). There were certain indications that the political forces that were labeled “orange” would form the parliamentary majority and nominate Tymoshenko as prime minister. But Socialists led by Oleksandr Moroz changed their loyalty at the very last moment and joined Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which was gaining power, sending Tymoshenko back to square one.

She finally rose to the post of prime minister in late 2007 and began working on her presidential campaign, which ended in failure in 2010.

Contrary to predictions, Tymoshenko in fact lost to Yanukovych by a mere 3.5% in the second round. It was for this reason that few people doubted that the lawsuit against her was aimed at removing her from the political stage.

Not many people remember that the first in the series of lawsuits that she faced cited an improper use of the funds that Ukraine received from Japan under the Kyoto Protocol. As it turned out, ordinary Ukrainians displayed little concern about global warming. Moreover, Tymoshenko testified that she had indeed redistributed the funds to help pay for pensions instead. So her prosecutors had to come up with something else. They recalled the improper use of ambulance cars which were allegedly used in her election campaign. That tack also failed to generate much of a reaction. And then the authorities pulled their fool-proof trump card from their sleeve: the gas contract with Russia that Tymoshenko signed in 2009, a contract that Ukraine views as unfair and has unsuccessfully been trying to revise.

Tymoshenko is being sued for abuse of power when signing the gas contracts with Russia.

No one can predict what the verdict will be unless they are somehow privy to some inside information. The state prosecutors are asking for seven years behind bars.

Today as the verdict was read out the former prime minister of Ukraine was sentenced to seven years in prison after she was found guilty of abuse of office. As well as the jail term, Yulia Tymoshenko was fined a phenomenal 1.5 billion hryvna ($186 million) in “damages to the state.”

The verdict was immediately condemned in the West as politically motivated. Western countries have directly expressed that it will significantly complicate their relations with Ukraine, which is geared towards European integration and plans to initial an association agreement with the EU before this year is out. That agreement includes a part about a free trade zone.

Russia is not thrilled by the verdict either. Officials in Moscow are well aware that Tymoshenko’s conviction could give Ukraine additional cause to contest the legitimacy of their gas contract in international courts.

 

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