A model revolutionary

She's the diminutive firebrand who inspired Ukrainians to take a stand. In a rare interview, Julia Tymoshenko tells Tom Reed what stirs her rebel spirit
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In the past seven years, Julia Tymoshenko has endured imprisonment, the jailing of her husband and several assassination attempts. But, even considering the drama that has accompanied her life, she could never have imagined the events that saw her emerge as a leading actor in one of the most unexpected political upheavals of recent history.

In the past seven years, Julia Tymoshenko has endured imprisonment, the jailing of her husband and several assassination attempts. But, even considering the drama that has accompanied her life, she could never have imagined the events that saw her emerge as a leading actor in one of the most unexpected political upheavals of recent history.

Since 21 November, Tymoshenko has been the force behind the protests that have kept up to half a million people camped outside the parliament in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. And as the country gears up for one last push towards true democracy, the pressure grows on her - a glamorous radical, and deputy to the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko - to keep up the momentum for reform.

Yet no fanfare, and no visual frisks from men carrying Glock firearms, greet my arrival at her dacha outside Kiev. I simply push open the back door, and there she is: a tiny, pretty woman with a mass of honey-blonde hair, wearing pink jeans and a black polo-neck, smiling that amazing smile.

I recall an article in The Economist warning that, though she may look like Audrey Hepburn, anyone who has got this far in a country where politics often resembles a Jacobean revenge tragedy must have an edge. If so, it's difficult to discern as she flutters her hands apologetically: "Would you like some coffee, some tea?"

I feel wrong-footed, embarrassed. Surely I should be the nervous one? After all, her enemies have dubbed her the "Gas Princess" and portray her as a ruthless oligarch. She's been demonised as a robber baroness who bilked Ukraine's energy industry as the people froze and factories closed during the frenzied privatisations of the 1990s. Her supporters, just as many, consider her a saint. Village crones travel to Kiev to bring her icons; some have photos of her on their walls. To her admirers, she is Ukraine's answer to Aung San Suu Kyi; a Marianne for the post-perestroika generation.

"Ukraine is always told that its elections are critical," Tymoshenko says, leaning forward on the sofa. "But I can say for sure that in the last four years, the power of the eastern clans has been solidified so much that if the people don't take power back now, we never will."

Born in 1960, in Dnepropetrovsk, a Russian-speaking village that was also the birthplace of Leonid Brezhnev, Tymoshenko trained as an economist before amassing a huge fortune through her dealings in the energy industry. She then decided to enter politics. She made the transition from a member of Ukraine's disliked new moneyed elite to become the deputy prime minister in 2001, at the age of 41.

"I had no idea how democracy worked," she says. "The first time I voted, it was for myself as a parliamentary candidate. We had set up a business, a commodity brokerage, trading steel, coal, cotton, things like that, for Russian gas. You have to understand that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the old trade links broke down and Ukraine had no proper markets for its raw materials. I saw an opportunity to help restore them, but there was no legislation to support private business. The government was still essentially Communist and didn't want to change anything."

Trying to get things done led her to enter parliament. "I soon realised that most of the decisions taken there were just rubber-stamping President Kuchma's decrees." So she called for his impeachment. "He took bribes to allow nomenklatura privatisations. He took bribes to appoint people to positions of power. He said, 'On condition you work for me, I will sell you this factory or this property for a nominal sum.' He's the head of the shadow economy."

Appointed energy minister in 2000, her success at breaking the power of the regional business clans triggered a swift fall from grace. She proved to be a little too good at her job. Through intermediaries, Ukraine's oligarchs tried to "persuade" her to abandon the reform programme, or face unspecified consequences. She refused.

First, the Ukrainian government cancelled her company's contracts with Russia, then demanded that the business repay the state $5bn and return to Russia all the gas Ukraine had already burnt in its homes and generators. The company, UESU, collapsed under its weight of debt, but her enemies didn't stop there. They hauled Oleksandr, Julia's husband and fellow UESU executive, off to prison, and then they seized her father-in-law. And, on 13 February 2001, machine gun-wielding police from the Prosecutor General's office burst through her front door to arrest her.

"After my husband's arrest, I knew that soon they would come for me," she says. "I packed an overnight bag. I carried it everywhere with me. I could have left and asked for asylum, but I never really considered that. I felt that if I left the country it would be capitulation, and if they chased away all the normal people the country would not survive. I was in prison for 43 days."

Oleksandr escaped and is now in hiding outside the country. Her father-in-law, Gennady, was recently released after several years in prison. Julia's daughter Zhenya said: "He has been kept in horrible conditions and almost died. They took him to intensive care at the last minute. He is still learning to walk again." Now Julia lives with her daughter, two housekeepers and, occasionally, a discreet bodyguard.

Slightly awed that she still describes herself as "normal", I ask her what conditions were like in the prison where she was held. For the first time, her poise falters. I realise she is about to cry. Absurdly, I want to pat her on the knee. But she is not interested in telling me about how much she suffered. She only wants to tell me about her fellow inmates, and the fate of the judge who ordered her release; his career and his children's were destroyed.

On the face of it, an opposition victory looks almost impossible. Moscow, which fears creeping Westernisation on its borders, has signalled its support for the current regime. And with impeccable timing, its prosecutors have charged Tymoshenko with corrupting Russian officials. As well as an election campaign, she is fighting attempts to extradite her and lives in fear of kidnap by security officials.

So what will the opposition do if it should win? Will she move against the oligarchs? Similar attempts to clamp down on Serbia's shadowy businessmen cost that country's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, his life when he was gunned down by a sniper last year. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin took a different tack, giving an informal amnesty to the oligarchs who remained after Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

Suddenly, Tymoshenko smiles that amazing smile. "We can't start with economics. We need to re-establish the rule of law and a free press. Besides, the oligarchs are cowards. As soon as they realise that the system has changed they will be forced to change their methods or go to jail."

And, crucially, which way will Ukraine lean once it becomes a properly functioning country again? Will it lean towards Europe, or will it look to Russia for guidance?

"I am not a market fundamentalist," Tymoshenko says. "I dislike both [Francis] Fukuyama and Marx - these radical philosophers shouldn't hurry with forecasting the end of the world. I find utopias boring. It's time for Ukraine to grow up."