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Who is Yulia Tymoshenko?

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All eyes are on former prime minister and revolutionary icon Yulia Tymoshenko this week, as the political uprising in the Ukraine continues to develop at a dramatic pace. Stylist takes a look at the woman behind the headlines:

Yulia Tymoshenko: timeline of key events

  • 1990s: Head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU), overseeing the sale of Russian gas to Ukrainian companies
  • 1996: Becomes an MP
  • 2000: Made Deputy Prime Minister in charge of energy
  • 2004: Becomes a key figure in the Orange Revolution, leading the overturn of rigged election results by incumbent Viktor Yanukovych
  • 2005: Made Prime Minister in President Viktor Yushchenko's government but fired for arguing with colleagues after just eight months
  • 2007: Returns as Ukrainian Prime Minister
  • 2009: Makes controversial gas deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin
  • 2010: Loses election to Yanukovych after tightly contested run-off
  • 2011: Jailed for seven years for misusing state funds
  • 2012: Launches hunger strike from jail over mistreatment by prison guards
  • 2014: Released after an uprising against Yushchenko forced a change in parliamentary law

A fiery and headstrong orator, Yulia Tymoshenko was a hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and gained popular backing both with her boundless appetite for firebrand protest and her blonde peasant-style image. But Ukraine's two-time prime minister is far from an unanimous hero of the people and has courted controversy over the years, including allegations of political corruption and mismanagement during her time in power.

Hero of the Orange Revolution

Tymoshenko and her allies celebrate after rising to power in the Orange Revolution

Her allies paint Tymoshenko as a glamorous, passionate figure who rallied against the Ukraine's mainstay of macho, corrupt leadership and powerful oligarchs - not to mention the mistreatment she endured during her years in jail. Her detractors see her as a murkier figure, with dubious ties to Russia and a checkered political history.

In a fact that jars slightly with her provincial appeal, Tymoshenko, 53, was once a wealthy businesswoman. In the 1990s, she ran United Energy Systems of Ukraine, which supplied Russian gas to Ukrainian companies.

We will protect Ukraine from this new calamity that has befallen her - Yulia Tymoshenko

She was catapulted into the spotlight in Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, as she and her ally Viktor Yushchenko took to the streets to lead a mass protest movement against the rigged election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The two succeeded in wresting power from Yanukovych via Ukraine's Supreme Court and formed a pro-Western, anti-Russian Orange alliance with Yushchenko as President and Tymoshenko as Prime Minister. But the relationship between the two quickly became tense, and their government was accused of economic failure, political corruption and in-party fighting.

Tymoshenko was sacked in 2005 amid feuding between party colleagues. She was reappointed prime minister in 2007 but the in-fighting continued. In 2010, Tymoshenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a gas dispute and appeared to appease the leader - "We feel comfortable working with Tymoshenko's government," he later commented - but many Ukrainians viewed this new relationship as suspicious.

Political downfall and jail time

Eugenia Tymoshenko campaigned for her mother's release from a female penal colony

Tymoshenko's political nemesis Yanukovych re-appeared during the presidential run-off of 2010 and fought a tightly contested race with her for power (Yushchenko was voted out earlier on). Yanukovych won and Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years in 2011, on charges of criminally exceeding her powers when she agreed a gas deal with Russia.

The charges were widely viewed as politically motivated; Tymoshenko had made no secret of her extreme opposition to Yanukovych, once declaring: "We will protect Ukraine from this new calamity that has befallen her."

Tymoshenko's time in jail helped cast Yanukovych in the role of villain; international figures including Angela Merkel demanded her release from a female penal colony in eastern Ukraine. Widespread outrage reached a new level in 2012 (when Ukraine hosted the Euro football tournament) as Tymoshenko went on hunger strike after claiming she was beaten up by prison guards.

Her daughter Eugenia - who emerged as a lead figure in the campaign for her mother's release - pointed to pictures that showed bruising on Tymoshenko's arms and stomach (the jail claimed they were self-inflicted).

Back in the spotlight

Tymoshenko addressing crowds in Kiev at the weekend

Events in Ukraine came to a head last week, with the death of at least 75 protesters and police in bloody clashes, following months of protests over Yanukovych's pro-Russian policies.

Amid what he described as a violent coup, Yanukovych fled and Tymoshenko was released from detention after a rushed change in parliamentary law. Having suffered a back injury, she addressed crowds in Kiev from a wheelchair. Despite appearing noticeably older and frailer, she delivered a resolute, impassioned message that has come to be her trademark.

"You are heroes," she told the crowds, breaking down in tears. "Because nobody could... do what you have done. We've eliminated this cancer, this tumour [in reference to Yanukovych]."

But boos among those listening indicate that her path to re-election is far from guaranteed. The Guardian reported that some people held signs saying, "Freedom for Yulia, but not politics", and "We were not fighting for Yulia".

"It's probably not a good thing if she runs," one of Tymoshenko's advisers told the Wall Street Journal. "But who's going to tell her?"

ITV's James Mates was the first Western journalist to speak to Tymoshenko after she was freed and she told him her country people "have opened Ukraine's path to democracy, to freedom and to Europe."

From courageous to morally dubious, glamorous to corrupt, revolutionary to face of the old regime, Tymoshenko is seen through a myriad of conflicting opinions and perceptions. But whatever happens in the future, she's made her stamp on history and won't be going away any time soon.

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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