The Rise And Fall Of Yulia Tymoshenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- Hers is an improbable life. She makes billions overnight in a rough industry. She loses most of it and goes into politics. She falls from grace again, but then leads a democratic revolution.

Yulia Tymoshenko during the trial in Kiev. A seven-year sentence by a politically motivated court may turn this Ukrainian populist into a martyr.

She becomes a powerful prime minister and dreams of the top job. She loses the election for president and begins to fade from the scene.

But a bare-knuckled political rival won't forget or forgive past slights.

On Tuesday, one of his judges throws her in prison for seven years on transparently political charges. Now she's a martyr.

This is Yulia Tymoshenko's journey. So far.

Even those who can't place Ukraine on a map—for the record, between Russia and Poland, and the size of France—might recognize her plaited blonde hair and delicate smile.

The fragile exterior, of course, conceals steely determination.

It might seem unlikely that such an alluring public figure emerged from this drab post-Soviet industrial breadbasket (think Nebraska mixed with Detroit). Yet she could have come from nowhere else.

Ms. Tymoshenko is Proteus in a dress.

We're not talking the usual opportunistic policy flip-flops or loose party loyalties, though there is that.

Over the past 15 years she has taken on radically contrasting personas. Slavic Joan of Arc is the latest role and I'd bet not the last.

Her shifting identities fit a place like Ukraine. The country is also a work in progress, still unsure of what it is and what it will become, two decades into its first extended spell of independence.

Her name first came up in 1996, when a recently formed company, United Energy Systems (UES), suddenly gained control over a tenth, a fifth—one could only guess—of the economy.

That July, I scheduled an appointment with UES's chief named Tymoshenko about whom very little was known.

At a hotel in downtown Kiev, men with machine guns stood guard outside her suite.

I expected the usual post-Soviet mogul, either slick or troglodyte, or both, and obviously a man. But what I found was a young woman (just 35) with long, frizzy dirty blondish hair and provincial manners and clothes.

This was her first interview with a reporter.

She spoke softly in Russian, her only strong language then, and sketched out her background in vague outline.

She started as an economist at a factory that built SS-18s and ICBMs in her hometown of Dnipropetrovsk.

In late perestroika days, she got into business with her father-in-law, pirating films for VCR rentals and then transporting gasoline.

Ms. Tymoshenko blushed when asked about her relationship with the sitting prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, also from Dnipropetrovsk.

A political in was and is the key to success in business in Russia or Ukraine.

Earlier that year, the new premier awarded her company an exclusive concession to deliver natural gas to Ukraine's energy-guzzling factories.

Monopoly power proved lucrative: UES tallied up revenues of $11 billion in 1996 alone, on which it paid, it was later revealed, just $11,000 in taxes.

Between February 1996 and September 1997, UES wired at least $120 million into Mr. Lazarenko's accounts in Switzerland and Antigua, according to a subsequent U.S. investigation into money laundering, wire fraud and other alleged offenses committed by him.

"All our business is designed to make Ukraine stronger," Ms. Tymoshenko said that summer.

Mr. Lazarenko sought asylum in the U.S., but a jury in San Francisco convicted him in 2004.

He's due to be released from a California prison next year. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

As her mentor languished in U.S. courts, Ms. Tymoshenko excelled in politics. Her makeover was stunning.

The next time I saw her, in 1997, she wore a dark business suit, had short auburn hair, and spoke assertively.

Suddenly she had Clintonian charisma as well as discipline, often showing up hours late for appointments. Her appeal was unusual.

She had already made her fortune, it was said, so unlike so many other Ukrainian pols she wouldn't use her public office for personal gain.

After Mr. Lazarenko was forced out of office in July 1997, UES lost its political patronage and eventually went out of business.

In a couple of years, Ms. Tymoshenko—by all accounts out of business for good—was a deputy prime minister in a Ukrainian government run by the eastern, Russian-speaking elites.

Eventually she fell out with them, a common theme in her professional life.

When she re-emerged in 2004, at the head of street protests against her former political allies, Ms. Tymoshenko was reborn as a nationalist dressed and coifed in the style of a Ukrainian peasant girl.

She had perfected her Ukrainian and didn't like to speak Russian.

The Orange Revolution brought her back to power. Briefly a hero, she didn't like to share the glory with another Orange leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, and their political marriage collapsed.

He lost support, then power. Her star rose.

She ran her eponymous party and government with a heavy, some would say authoritarian, hand.

In another role reversal, she grew close to Russia's Vladimir Putin, who condemned Tuesday's court decision, calling it "dangerous" and "counterproductive."

The prosecution may turn out to be the latest career-saver for Ms. Tymoshenko. Viktor Yanukovych, the humiliated loser in the Orange Revolution, tried to steal the vote in 2004.

He defeated her to win the presidency fair and square last year, but he held a grudge.

I'm told by my sources in Ukraine that he personally gave the ultimate green light to try her.

Her party poses a threat to his regime, which has tightened screws on the media and reversed many of Ukraine's democratic gains.

Mr. Yanukovych and his ministers say the case shows no one's above the law, but Ukraine's courts are far from independent.

Among its many shortcomings, the Orange crowd failed to strengthen democratic institutions when they had the opportunity.

Ms. Tymoshenko was convicted of approving a gas deal with Mr. Putin in 2009 without her cabinet's approval.

The state didn't claim she made any money off the deal; it was, rather, an issue of procedure.

Mr. Yanukovych was too obtuse to see, apparently, that the prosecution of a leading opposition politician would win her public sympathy, stir international outrage and possibly reboot her career.

"I will continue my fight for Ukraine, for its European future," she said just before the verdict.

Her fate remains unclear.

Just this week Ukraine's state security announced a new criminal probe into her past dealings with Mr. Lazarenko.

Mr. Putin's Russia pioneered the use of serial prosecutions against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another energy billionaire who dabbled in politics.

But Mr. Yanukovych needs friends and good trade contacts in the West.

Slapped down by Washington and Brussels this week, he now hints that Ms. Tymoshenko may walk free.

That would be a small bit of good news for democracy in Eastern Europe—and would open the next chapter in the strange career of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Source: The Wall Street Journal