Two fierce rivals in cycle of power and revolution

By Roland Oliphant, David Blair

Ousted President's grave miscalculations transformed the protests and now his pro-European political foe, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been released from jail to a triumphant welcome and is set to make a comeback

Anti-government protesters stand guard in front of Ukraine's Parliament in Kiev - they are now in control. Photo / AP
Anti-government protesters stand guard in front of Ukraine's Parliament in Kiev - they are now in control. Photo / AP

The two great rivals of Ukrainian politics first crossed swords a decade ago. This weekend the fates of President Viktor Yanukovych and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko once again took dramatically opposite turns.

Hours after Yanukovych was overthrown and fled Kiev, Ukraine's "Iron Lady" was released from detention and headed for Independence Square to hail the "end of dictatorship".

Tymoshenko, who was jailed on trumped-up charges of abuse of office in 2011, was released from prison hospital on the orders of Parliament.

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Tymoshenko is expected to be a contender for the presidency. If she triumphs in the presidential vote that the Ukrainian Parliament set for May 25, it will be a remarkable comeback for a woman who supporters say was thrown in jail by Yanukovych to eliminate his main rival.

Raised by a single mother in Dnipropetrovsk, the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, Tymoshenko's journey to wealth and power began as one of a handful of hopeful entrepreneurs who made it big in the turbulent years of perestroika-era capitalism.

Starting out with a video rental company, she rose to become a billionaire on the back of a gas company. Her career in the 1990s gas industry is not without controversy, and opponents have accused her of paying kickbacks and engaging in other corrupt practices.

She first battled Yanukovych in 2004, when she allied with a fellow pro-European, Viktor Yushchenko, to form an alliance against then-President, Leonid Kuchma.

When Kuchma's anointed successor, Yanukovych, declared a fraudulent victory in elections that year, the pair led a three-month protest on Kiev's Independence Square that came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

Security and protester volunteers outside the presidential countryside retreat. Photo / AP
Security and protester volunteers outside the presidential countryside retreat. Photo / AP

The revolutionaries triumphed, denying Yanukovych the presidency, but the Orange alliance proved so dysfunctional in power that by the time elections came around again five years later, Yanukovych was able to stage a comeback. In early 2010, Tymoshenko was forced to concede defeat in a narrow but largely clean second-round run-off against Yanukovych.

This time, the shots that echoed over Independence Square on Friday sealed the downfall of Ukraine's leader.

His security forces killed dozens of people. But after the worst punishment the President could mete out, the protesters were still in possession of Independence Square and their vanguard actually managed to enlarge the area of central Kiev under their control. Yanukovych had, quite literally, fired his last shot.

No leader sealed his own political demise more surely than this former electrician, who served time in jail for theft and assault in his youth.

The first protests began in November after Yanukovych spurned an association agreement with the European Union in favour of taking a US$15 billion loan from Russia. Yet the crowds dwindled as winter set in. By early January, it seemed likely that the demonstrations would fade away. Then Yanukovych secured the passage of nine draconian security laws banning almost all forms of public protest. His police became more heavy-handed, shooting two people on January 22.

Those grave miscalculations transformed the protests. The rallies swelled and their overriding goal became the removal of Yanukovych.

Yanukovych tried to appease his foes, repealing the security laws and sacking the government. In the end, he had no more concessions to offer save his own resignation. With his back to the wall, Yanukovych resorted to using force against his foes.

A man holds a golf club with the name of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Photo / AP
A man holds a golf club with the name of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Photo / AP

As to the future, while Tymoshenko retains a great deal of respect on Independence Square, it is yet to be seen whether she will be as welcome at the ballot box. Many Ukrainians feel that she is a politician from a previous era, and that a new face - possibly Vitaly Klitschko, 42, the heavyweight boxing champion turned politician who is probably the most popular of the leaders of the disparate opposition movement - is needed to move the country forward after this revolution.

Crucially, Tymoshenko has kudos not only on Independence Square but also in Moscow. She is said to have got on well with Vladimir Putin during a series of tough negotiations when she was Yushchenko's Prime Minister.

That relationship may allow her to navigate a course more successfully between Russia and Europe that proved Yanukovych's undoing.

Inside President's mansion

The extravagance and bad taste of the man who until yesterday was President of Ukraine was laid bare as ordinary, and soon dumbfounded, citizens inspected his home.

Viktor Yanukovych had fled the compound in the dark of night, and by the afternoon it was thronged with the curious.

Forty minutes drive north of Kiev, the visitors found tennis courts, a golf course, exotic animals and birds, a luxury car collection, and a vast mock galley that appeared to be a restaurant.

They hoisted Ukrainian flags and explored the many buildings dotted around the property.

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The centrepiece is a large stone and wooden mansion combining classical and gothic elements with the upper floors of a Swiss chalet. Two members of the opposition's "self-defence units" put down their baseball bats to take a bike ride along the riverside promenade.

Others visitors made their way round the golf course using Yanukovych's clubs.

Activists who first occupied the compound said they had counted helicopters taking off from the site 44 times in the night. "They took everything - everything except the furniture and the zoo animals," said one.

In summary: Main events

1) Protesters took control of the capital and police abandoned posts.
2) The Parliament voted to remove the President from power and set new elections for May 25.
3) President Viktor Yanukovych accused the opposition of a coup and said he wouldn't step down, but his rule appears to be crumbling.
4) His chief rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is now free from two years in custody, and is promising to run for President. Tymoshenko is already confidently talking about joining the EU, but that prospect seems a long way off given Ukraine's corrupt economy.
5) The sharp divide between east and west has fuelled fears of a messy breakup of the country. That remains a risk, though all sides are pleading against it.
- AP

What now?

Will Ukraine be divided?
Talk of secession by the Crimea and the country's east is still doing the rounds and one scenario being discussed is the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This would be a repeat performance of the occupation by Russian forces of Abkhazia in 2008 and could lead to an alarming confrontation between Moscow and whatever future government emerges in Kiev. Russian "delegates" were in Kharkiv as Crimean political figures called for "protection". It is possible the threat of a fracturing Ukraine is being deliberately stage-managed.

What's Russia's beef in all this?
One of Vladimir Putin's key regional policies is the creation of a Eurasian Union which is due to be inaugurated in 2015. Critics say this is an effort to pull back together various bits of the old Soviet Union in a new regional bloc. From the Kremlin's point of view, the EU deal and last week's EU mediation represents a serious incursion into Moscow's backyard.

Who are the protesters?
Different sectors have invested competing hopes in the protests that broke out in November. The first protesters were largely young middle-class students and liberals. The breaking up of that protest drew in an older, more nationalistic group. The most recent violence has seen hardline rightwing nationalists.

What do they want?
In the western cities the pro-European argument is actually a shorthand for various political discontents, including a growing anger at the domination of the country's economy by the President's crony oligarchs, a lack of rule of law and a constitution that concentrated power in the hands of the President.
- Observer

- Daily Telegraph UK

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