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Tymoshenko Faces Yanukovich in February 7 Ukrainian Presidential Runoff

André de Nesnera | Washington 28 January 2010

Current Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko faces former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in a presidential runoff February 7. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera profiles Ms. Tymoshenko, a leading figure in what became known as the "Orange Revolution."

Yulia Tymoshenko was born in 1960 in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine. Her rival for the presidency, Viktor Yanukovich, was also born in that city, but 10 years earlier.

University of Alberta Ukraine expert David Marples says she earned a doctorate in economics, ran a gas corporation and was involved in the privatization schemes of the 1990s.

"Her career really took off when she became president of the United Energy Systems of Ukraine," said Marples. This was an organization that was involved in importing gas from Russia and getting a kind of monopoly in importing gas."

"And then, from all accounts, reselling it - I guess you could say quote-unquote 'illegally', because she was not supposed to do it, avoiding any kind of tax. And at that time she became known as 'the gas princess' because she made a small fortune out of doing this," he added.

Marples says in the late 1990s she met Viktor Yushchenko, who was named prime minister by then president Leonid Kuchma in 1999. She then served in the Yushchenko administration.

"He was only there for less than two years," said Marples. "She was deputy prime minister for fuel and energy, but she was dismissed - apparently on the orders of Kuchma - in early 2001. A little bit later she was actually arrested and she was charged with smuggling gas and forging customs forms and things like that. She did not spend very long in jail, she was released very quickly."

Ironically, says Marples, Viktor Yanukovich also spent time in jail, but for manslaughter and beating someone up. "So both the presidential candidates of Ukraine have been in jail, which I think must be quite unique in the history of presidential elections in any country." he said.

"They are very different kinds of felonies: one arrested for corrupt business practices and the other for attacking somebody. So one is a kind of working class felon and the other is a kind of middle-class business felon, you could say," he continued.

Soon after her release from jail she formed her own political group in parliament known as the Tymoshenko Bloc.

University of Toronto Ukrainian expert Frank Sysyn says Ms. Tymoshenko burst on the international scene as one of the leaders of the 2004 "Orange Revolution", along with Viktor Yushchenko.

"She took on, in many ways, in the 'Orange Revolution,' her Joan of Arc status, by putting on the braid which many associate with traditional Ukrainian culture," said Sysyn. "[She] certainly learned to speak a language that resonated among the national democratic forces and the language of the West. She was the revolutionary of 2004 in that she wanted to storm the barricades at one point - literally - and certainly was against coming to a compromise with the old elite."

The "Orange Revolution" brought to power Mr. Yushchenko, who was elected president after hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets. They were protesting the results of an earlier election declared fraudulent by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and international monitors. In a subsequent election, Mr. Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovich.

Ms. Tymoshenko became prime minister in the first Yushchenko cabinet, which lasted only about nine months.

But David Marples says the two former allies became bitter foes. "Over the period of Yushchenko's presidency, there was a lot of bitterness between them," he said. "And in the end, I would say the last year or so, absolute, total animosity. There was no hope at all of any kind of rapprochement between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko."

Yulia Tymoshenko now faces Viktor Yanukovich in a presidential runoff February 7. Whoever is elected chief executive will face the same problems that outgoing President Yushchenko was unable to adequately tackle: a dismal economy, corruption, and a Ukrainian electorate disillusioned with the country's political leaders.