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From Princess To Prisoner, The Singular Journey Of Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko

Named one of the world's richest and most powerful women by Forbes in 2005, Former Prime Ukrainian Minister Yulia Tymshenko sits in jail as her country is set to co-host the European Soccer Championship.

Tymoshenko in 2008 (Council of Europe)
Tymoshenko in 2008 (Council of Europe)
Gerhard Gnauck

BOBRINEZ - We meet Serhij Sukiasjan on an uneven soccer field in Bobrinez, Ukraine. The grass has seen better days but there are bleachers and even a clubhouse with trophies, souvenirs of clubs from Liverpool to Moscow and the new UEFA pennant for the European Championships. On the other side of the Novator stadium is an Orthodox church painted sky blue.

Serhij, originally from Armenia, has been living – and playing soccer – here for 15 years. He remembers the late 1990s, when Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko, an entrepreneur from the regional capital five hours away, started her political career here.

The first people in Bobrinez (pop. 9,000) to support Tymoshenko were hospital employees– hence the local residents' tongue in cheek claim that Yulia's political birth took place in their hospital.

Other collectives soon came on board. Former District Commissioner Dmitro Samsha remembers Tymoshenko's first campaign appearances: "She never turned anyone away, answering even the dumbest questions. And she really knew how to give a speech. She conquered hearts. "

The Queen of Hearts – a brunette at the time, without the braid – was elected to Parliament with 92.3% of the votes in her constituency.

From Queen of Hearts…

That was the start of an auspicious period for Bobrinez. Tymoshenko was generous with her district. "When she arrived, people were waiting eight months to get their salaries," Samsha recalls. "Metal thieves were stealing everything from manhole covers to trash bins. And then along came Yulia, who helped us secure loans. She also paid for many things. During the 1998 crisis she got enough gas pipelines for us to lay 21 kilometers worth. We were supposed to get them on credit, but we couldn't pay, so she practically gave them to us."

She renovated the church and the school for kids with learning difficulties, to which she also sent teaching aids and food. The kids were orphans, with no parents to vote for Yulia in the next elections – which she won, two years later, with 76% of the vote.

Serhij Sukiasjan remembers the soccer club receiving new shirts, and the players deciding to rename it the Yulia-Novator. The club shot up in the rankings. Sukiasjan proudly shows a photo of the team holding up the "Yulia-Cup" with guest of honor Oleg Blochin, a former striker for Dynamo Kiev who is now the national team's coach.

If the politician Tymoshenko was born in Bobrinez, the businesswoman was born in Dnipropetrovsk, the regional capital. With a population of one million, the city was also home to Leonid Brezhnev and arms manufacturer Jushmash, producer of the SS-20 missiles. Yulia was born in 1960 and lived in a 5-floor new apartment block with her mother and her aunt.

Her aunt, Antonina Uljachina, an electrical engineer, remembers, "We had a three-room apartment, which was a real luxury back then." In the 1960s and 70s, the children who lived in the building all played together out back, and Aunt Antonina -- who was just 11 years older than Yulia – kept an eye on them. "Yulia was athletic, she enjoyed playing soccer," she says.

The children played a game called "Robbers and Cossacks." Yulia was fine with being one or the other as long as she was the boss. She was very fast, fearless, articulate and a good mediator. A child with a real sense of justice, sighs Aunt Antonina: "She was before her time. She is a 24th century person."

Tymoshenko was also top of her class. That's the way Larissa Shmaka, the director of Middle School 75, remembers her. When Tymoshenko was Prime Minister, Shmaka recalls, she helped renovate the school. And most important of all, "she still knew us all by name… She told us to forgive her if she sometimes did something that we disagreed with, that sometimes she didn't have a choice."

That was a long time ago. But between her school days and the peaceful revolution that she led in 2004, there was Yulia Tymoshenko the entrepreneur. Did she make her first million legally? Aunt Antonina says yes, adding that in the days of Gorbachev to become an entrepreneur "you didn't need to have money, you didn't need a loan. All you needed was to be smart."

…To Gas Princess

She describes Tymoshenko's first business venture as "a cross between a video-rental store and a movie theater. Yulia borrowed TV sets from all her family members. She needed 200 rubles, which amounted to a month's salary, to rent space and get other equipment. Just one screening, with tickets priced at one and a half rubles, brought in 75 rubles." And the best thing of all, Aunt Antonina says, is that for a long time the activity was not subject to tax.

Uljachina says that porn movies were never part of the deal. "By the time we could have shown Emmanuelle or something, they'd introduced a huge tax and Yulia closed the business."

Tymoshenko went on to other businesses, first the Ukrainian Petrol Corporation, then the United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU). Her father-in-law, a middle-level Soviet official named Gennadi Tymoshenko, helped her set up her company thanks to his Party contacts. Yulia became one of the richest people in Ukraine – that is until she fell out with President Leonid Kuchma's regime.

Uljachina believes that if this hadn't happened, her niece probably wouldn't have gone into politics. "Why? She was a successful entrepreneur!" But she was forced out. So Yulia, the elegant radiant "gas princess' as she was nicknamed, looked around and found herself a district – Bobrinez, a place she had never set foot in before.

She wanted to fight the system and fight corruption. "We wanted elections without fraud, and we thought Europe would support us," says Uljachina. But Europe was too busy with other things.

In 2005, she was appointed Prime Minister of Ukraine and named third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.

In 2011, a year after she contested President Yanukovych's election and accused the president-elect of vote rigging, she was charged for abuse of power over natural gas imports and tax evasion. Things have gone too far says Dmitro Samsha, the former district commissioner, shaking his head. "I'm certain that she won't be jailed for seven years. But I doubt she'll be out in time for the parliamentary elections this fall."

The Yulia-Novator football club is back to being called the Novator, and it's tumbled down in the ratings. In the manager's office hangs a campaign poster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych.

Read the original article in German

Photo - EPP

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