Former Ukraine leader to run for president

PRESIDENT BID: Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
PRESIDENT BID: Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yulia Tymoshenko, who for a decade has made Ukrainian politics an impassioned melodrama, has said that she would run for president in the May 25 election.

The former prime minister, who was freed from prison a month ago and released from the hospital a week ago, is facing what may be her last opportunity to reclaim the affection of Ukrainians that she squandered after the Orange Revolution of 2004 thrust her into a position of power.

On a day when Ukraine reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that will bring the country as much as $18 billion in loans, plus an additional $9 billion in associated assistance from the West - as well as a day when the UN General Assembly voted 100 to 11 in favour of a nonbinding resolution declaring Russia's annexation of Crimea illegitimate - Tymoshenko asked for another chance.

A new poll suggests that it's a slim one.

She has always been a bundle of contradictions. But that hasn't necessarily been a handicap in Ukraine.

She was the chief nemesis of ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych, who ensured that she spent most of his presidency incarcerated. Yet she has tended to get along well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych's sponsor. She made her fortune in the natural gas business. She met her downfall over a natural gas deal with Russia, which Yanukovych said was too generous to Moscow.

Putin said last year that Tymoshenko should be released from prison, where she had been sent for "abuse of office."

On Thursday, she said, "I consider Vladimir Putin to be Ukraine's enemy number one."

That, of course, comes after Russia's takeover of Crimea and Putin's threats against the rest of Ukraine.

Tymoshenko, who is from the eastern, Russian-speaking city of Dnepropetrovsk, portrays herself as a Ukrainian heroine, with her unmistakable blond braid wrapped around her head like a loaf of artisanal bread.

If she is to make headway in the eight weeks before the election, she has to overcome two rivals: Petro Poroshenko, the "chocolate king" of Ukraine, and Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion turned politician.

According to one recent national poll, conducted March 14-19 by the Center for Social and Marketing Research, Poroshenko, a businessman who runs Ukraine's favorite confectionery company, is on top, with support from nearly 25 per cent of registered voters, followed by Klitschko with nearly 9 per cent. Tymoshenko was running third, backed by slightly more than 8 per cent of voters.

Among several other candidates, Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of the right-wing All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda" party, considered by Russia to be a dangerous extremist, was favoured by less than 2 per cent of voters, according to the poll.

The IMF deal, to extend over two years, is part of a far-reaching effort to keep Ukraine from plunging into default and steady the country as it attempts to build democratic institutions.

Tymoshenko's announcement was a reminder to Ukraine that steadying the nation is not what she's about. Her bickering with her Orange Revolution partner, Viktor Yushchenko, helped to undermine progress after 2004. She declined to pursue the sorts of legal reforms that might have enabled her to stay out of prison when a vindictive Yanukovych came after her after his election victory in 2010.

She has been in the limelight for half of Ukraine's existence as a sovereign nation - years during which it fell far behind its Western European neighbors economically and failed to cement an identity as a unified nation.

But she's tough and determined, and her supporters, though limited in numbers, adore her.

The money from the IMF comes with stringent conditions. Ukraine is facing a period of sharp cutbacks in social spending. The interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Thursday that the government expects the gross domestic product to decline 3 per cent with the new package of loans and reforms. He said it would decline 10 per cent without it.

At a news conference in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, President Barack Obama called the IMF agreement "a major step forward" and urged Congress to approve a US aid proposal pending in the Senate.

"This is a concrete signal of how the world has united around Ukraine," Obama said, adding that the agreement would help spur democratic and economic reforms in the country.

Putin had been eager to enlist Ukraine as a member of an economic union he is creating along with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. When Yanukovych was ousted last month and Ukraine backed away from the union, Putin sent troops into Crimea, after which the autonomous and largely pro-Russian region - which became part of Ukraine in 1954 - staged a hastily organized referendum on whether to join Russia. After the overwhelming vote in favour, Putin annexed the region.

Ukrainians fear further incursions and difficult financial relations with Russia.

"Following the intense economic and political turbulence of recent months, Ukraine has achieved some stability but faces difficult challenges," Nikolay Gueorguiev, IMF mission chief for Ukraine, said in a statement Thursday. "The economic outlook remains difficult, with the economy falling back into recession."

The country is unable to borrow money on private markets, raising the risk of default when foreign debt payments fall due in the coming year.

Gueorguiev said the IMF board is expected to approve the loan for Ukraine next month, assuming the government follows through with "a strong and comprehensive package of prior actions aiming to stabilize the economy and create conditions for sustained growth."

In New York, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring that Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine was not valid. Azerbaijan, also a former Soviet republic, voted with Ukraine. Kazakhstan abstained, as did China and 56 other nations.

-Washington Post