She is unique on Ukraine's public stage: feminine, tough, stylish and worth millions. Now the onetime oligarch turned reformer is locked in political combat with President Leonid D. Kuchma. And the question is: Will she go to prison, or will the president fall from power first?
Kuchma ordered Yulia Tymoshenko fired as deputy prime minister for energy issues last month, shortly after her indictment on charges of smuggling, forgery and tax evasion. She is fighting back, charging that the accusations are driven by powerful supporters of Kuchma to end her efforts to root out corruption.
Whatever happens, Tymoshenko has seized imaginations as Ukraine's most charismatic politician.
"She brings dazzle to politics," said analyst Mikhailo Pohrebinski of the Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies. "Everyone else is so dull, people can't remember their names."
Tymoshenko's dismissal has weakened Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko's government just when the nation's economy is showing signs of growth for the first time in a decade. Yushchenko's opponents, and Tymoshenko's most scathing critics, are among the president's closest allies.
But Kuchma in turn has been weakened by the "Tapegate" scandal, involving secret audiotapes that purport to capture him ordering the disappearance of a journalist whose headless corpse was recently identified through DNA testing. That has prompted speculation that Kuchma fired Tymoshenko to keep his allies' support at a time when he's under pressure to resign.
Kuchma's critics have been clamoring for Yushchenko to join their cause, but he has been reluctant. That leaves Tymoshenko poised to spearhead the opposition--assuming that she isn't arrested first.
Political scientist Volodymyr Polokhalo, editor of the Ukrainian journal Political Thought, is pessimistic: "The regime will do everything not to allow such an opposition to gain strength."
Tymoshenko told The Times last week that she has a suitcase packed with clothes, a toothbrush and Bible in case she goes to jail.
In most countries, an indictment would spell political oblivion. But it is near-impossible to make money in Ukraine's unreformed economy without breaking a law, and criminal charges are commonly viewed as politics by other means.
"Anyone with money has a tail of illegality behind them," said Yulia Mostova, deputy editor of the respected weekly Zerkalo Tyzhdnia. "This makes them politically vulnerable. If they criticize the president or his inner circle, they can go to jail. If they are loyal, they don't."
Tymoshenko's company, United Energy Systems, or UES, was one of the largest private corporations to emerge from the defunct Soviet Union. As Ukraine's deputy premier since December 1999, she portrayed herself as a valiant reformer, blasting the "criminal oligarchic clans" in the energy sector and pushing controversial programs to get major customers to pay power-generating companies in taxable cash rather than with more common barter deals.
Critics said her reforms ran counter to a free market. But the International Monetary Fund praised the increased transparency. In December, it renewed a $2.6-billion loan program frozen since September 1999.
In any case, Tymoshenko's reforms made powerful enemies. "People lost colossal resources," she said. How colossal can be gauged by the increased taxes collected during her tenure: Revenue from energy companies increased by about $500 million and helped pay backlogged state wages and pensions.
The biggest losers were Kuchma's longtime allies, whose media empires have published reports attacking Tymoshenko's previous business dealings. Her husband, a UES officer, was jailed in August on embezzlement charges and remains incarcerated.
That Tymoshenko so far has held her own against Ukraine's toughest political players is partly thanks to Yushchenko. "It was a great achievement for him to keep me on for as long as he did despite the constant demands of the president and his circle that I be fired," she said.
Though she denies it, both critics and supporters believe that Tymoshenko is wealthier than any of her opponents. Estimates of her personal worth run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
With such wealth and charisma, she appears to some analysts to be the strongest candidate to lead the opposition to Kuchma. "There's no competition," Pohrebinski said.