By Matthias Williams and Pavel Polityuk
KIEV (Reuters) – Yulia Tymoshenko has been Ukraine’s prime minister twice, was the global face of a revolution, imprisoned by two different presidents, and the target of an operation to discredit her by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.
Now the 58-year-old known for her fiery rhetoric and, once upon a time, for her peasant braid hairstyle, hopes to unseat her old rival Petro Poroshenko in a tightly fought presidential vote on March 31.
Her campaign is a difficult balancing act, promising reforms and continued cooperation with the International Monetary Fund while pledging to reverse sharp increases in the price of gas used for home heating that the IMF set as a condition for more loans.
At stake is the chance to lead Ukraine five years after the Maidan street protests ousted a Kremlin-backed leader and set the country on a pro-Western course and bloody confrontation with Russia.
Tymoshenko is popular with older voters and promises a threefold increase in pensions should she win. But having started as the front runner, she trails in a three-horse race with Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Her rhetoric can be pungent. She calls the gas price increase “genocide”. Critics call her a populist. Asked whether she thought that was fair, Tymoshenko told Reuters it was a label “Poroshenko’s corrupt mafia” used to smear her.
His people were using the political dark arts “to fight against their serious and influential opponents, and therefore for me they have chosen the word populism,” she said in a rare interview with a foreign media organization.
Many investors have been comforted by Poroshenko sticking with Ukraine’s IMF program, which has supported the country through recession and war with Kremlin-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region.
When asked whether businesses should worry about her presidency, Tymoshenko pointed to her experience of working with the IMF as prime minister but said that the terms of the current arrangement were counterproductive.
“After the presidential election we would like to start a constructive dialogue with the IMF on how to correct this situation, how to make our joint cooperation bring results that will be felt by the economy of Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens.”
For ordinary people, “virtually all of their income is wiped out through exorbitant, unreasonably high gas prices, this means that people have no money left to support the Ukrainian economy”, she said.
Her plan for dealing with Russia is to persevere with the Minsk peace talks, which have staunched but not ended the bloodshed in the Donbass. She also called for wider negotiations involving the United States, Britain and the European Union.
IN THE DOCK
Tymoshenko became known as the “gas princess” because of her lucrative dealings at the head of a major energy company in the 1990s. She came to the world’s attention during Ukraine’s 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, which pitted her against Kremlin-friendly rival Viktor Yanukovich.
When he finally became president, Yanukovich jailed her and with the help of Paul Manafort, who later became Trump’s campaign manager, produced a 187-page report in 2012 justifying her imprisonment after an international outcry.
Manafort was eventually convicted as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
While working as a consultant to Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, Manafort used offshore accounts to secretly pay $4 million for the report on Tymoshenko, according to his indictment.
She compares the attacks from Poroshenko’s camp to that time. “I know that the strongest propaganda machine is turned against me, as Manafort once did,” she said, lambasting Manafort for “destroying my honest name, belittling my activities”.
Though soft-spoken during her Reuters interview, Tymoshenko has loudly turned her fire on Poroshenko in public.
She called for his impeachment in February over corruption allegations involving the son of one of Poroshenko’s close allies, which were made by an investigative journalist network. All parties involved deny wrongdoing.
Tymoshenko called it the tip of the iceberg and would put Poroshenko on trial if elected.
“Beneath the water there is a corruption pyramid built up enormously over five years,” she said. “We believe that we will win the presidential campaign and that the president, and his criminal corrupt environment, will be brought to justice.”
Tymoshenko herself was the subject of an investigation by the same journalist network, bihus.info, which found that her party had hidden the real sources of campaign donations.
Tymoshenko admitted her party had concealed contributions from businesses by pretending they came from ordinary voters, but said this was necessary to protect the businesses from vindictive investigations by the authorities.
An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Tymoshenko keeps a signed copy of the British prime minister’s memoirs in her office. This is Tymoshenko’s third shot at the presidency, having lost to Yanukovich in 2010 and Poroshenko in 2014.
Asked whether she saw Poroshenko or Zelenskiy as her main opponent this time, Tymoshenko chose Poroshenko.
But it is Zelenskiy who has emerged as the new front runner after announcing his candidacy in December, tapping into the disillusionment some feel about the slow pace of change since Maidan.
Asked why she has fallen as low as third place in some polls and whether her support was waning, she said:
“There was no fall,” arguing she still had the same number of supporters as before.
“Simply, there is a new presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has never been in politics. He now receives in polls the great support of people who are against the establishment, against the entire political class.”
So is her long experience in politics a strength or a weakness?
“I believe that Ukraine should end its history of voting for a person, a family name or a cool creative advertisement,” she said.
“For the first time, we need to vote not for individuals, but for real, serious, well-founded programs of action. Except us, nobody today has such programs.”
(Editing by Giles Elgood)