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Taking charge of the new Ukraine

A look at the old and new faces set to take the reins of the troubled former Soviet republic.

Last updated: 26 Feb 2014 13:05
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Many Ukrainians are divided on whether former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko should be president [AFP]

Kiev, Ukraine - It was a reversal of fortunes of historical proportions. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko released from jail on the same day by the same parliament that ousted her political nemesis and then-president Viktor Yanukovich.

Cheers met the decision in the house. However, many in the crowd at Independence Square, also known as Maidan, were unconvinced when Tymoshenko addressed the masses in a fiery speech later that night.

University student Daria Sipigina, 19, was one of them. She says Tymoshenko was putting on an act to serve herself and should have paid more homage to the dozens that died in the uprising.

"She must have gone to the barricades, she must have gone to the people who are injured, lying there and dying in the hospitals. She must have gone there, shaking their hands and saying ''Thank you, it's because of you I'm released,'" says Sipigina.

She's one of the most popular politicians in the country … with her charisma, with her courage and enthusiasm, with her brilliant mind and with her commitment to the European integration.

- Andriy Shevchenko, Fatherland party member of parliament

"[Instead] she went to Maidan and was speaking for 40 minutes about nothing … She's such a good actress."

Sipigina says she initially thought many people would believe Tymoshenko, 53, would be re-elected. However, when she went around the square asking for people's opinions, most said half of Ukraine's population would not support her.

Despite Tymoshenko's iconic status after shooting to fame as one of the leaders of the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, she remains a divisive figure with many voters viewing her as part of an older political generation that Ukraine needs to put behind itself.

'Charisma and courage'

However, Andriy Shevchenko, a MP with Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, says he was at the square that evening and the freed former prime minister was treated much better than other politicians there. He says she is a huge asset to his party.

"Tymoshenko makes our party way stronger," Shevchenko says. "She's one of the most popular politicians in the country… with her charisma, with her courage and enthusiasm, with her brilliant mind and with her commitment to the European integration. She really is capable of making a huge difference."

He tells Al Jazeera that Tymoshenko's loss to Yanukovich by only about three percent in the 2010 election shows how popular she is, adding he hopes there is both experienced politicians and fresh faces in the new government.

Ukraine's parliament is expected to appoint the new ministers and deputies of a national unity government on Thursday. Presidential elections, meanwhile, are slated for May 25.

Tymoshenko became rich in the 1990s while running an energy company and later went into politics. She rose to international prominence as one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution who had called the election corrupt, and eventually became prime minister.

Convicted for abuse of power over a 2009 gas deal with Russia and jailed in 2011, Tymoshenko suffers from chronic back pain that has forced her into a wheelchair.

Alla, 48, says she would support Tymoshenko as president if she ran, but wants her to take time out to rest after being released following two-and-a-half years in prison.

"She is so brave … I hope people trust her again," says Alla, who did not want to give her last name. "I hope she can help … to develop Ukraine."

Tarik Cyril Amar, an assistant history professor who specialises in Ukraine at Columbia University in New York, says one of the reasons behind the dislike for Tymoshenko is that protesters are critical of the political elite on both sides, and she is seen as part of a discredited system.

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko [Reuters]

He adds she should not be idolised or demonized, and she does possess a strong ability to appeal to crowds.

Corruption allegations

Suspicions of corruption have dampened Tymoshenko's reputation for years. In the 1990s, she was considered one of the richest people in Ukraine, and many here believe a person cannot achieve such wealth in the country without being involved in graft at some level.

While prime minister, she made a deal over gas supplies that was seen as profitable for Russia and unfavourable to Ukraine.

Sipigina says Tymoshenko could sell out the country to Russia in similar fashion to what Yanukovich was accused of when he chose a bailout deal from Moscow over a trade agreement with the European Union.

"He's a thief but he's an obvious thief [and] she's not. She's a concealed one and she's a discreet one … That's why she's dangerous, she's a very smart woman," says Sipigina.

The member of parliament Shevchenko, however, says the corruption allegations are politically motivated, and any wrongdoing would have been definitively uncovered by now given her long and successful business career.

"If there was something substantial … we would see that," Shevchenko says.

Professor Amar says the investigations conducted into the Russian gas deal were politically driven, but he adds every politician and oligarch had to overstep boundaries to become successful in post-Soviet countries.

"Which is why it's so odd [that] you then suddenly see some of them highlighted … as particularly terrible cases, because frankly they all had to do irregular things, otherwise they wouldn't have succeeded."

Sipigina says protesters are demanding more transparency to make it is harder for politicians to hide the truth. "We feel that when we are told lies, I think people are more sensitive to that after Maidan … We were living in kind of a fog before, but now people see more, they want to dig for truth."

Power vacuum

While much of the attention has been on Tymoshenko, the ousting of Yanukovich has created a political vacuum with protest figures jostling for power.

Two leading politicians from Tymoshenko's party are both seen as her close allies. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister, had a prominent role at the protests, often appearing on stage at the square.

Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov [EPA]

Fellow Fatherland MP Oleksandr Turchynov rose to power in parliament over the weekend, becoming the speaker and acting president.

Meanwhile, former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who leads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, is seen as relatively inexperienced.

Klitschko has announced his intention to run for the country's top post in May.

"I will run for president, because I am convinced that in Ukraine we need to change the rules completely. I know for sure that we can do this," he said.

Amar suggests Klitschko would have the best chance to win widespread support among the different regions in Ukraine. The key to stability is for political leaders from all sides to find a compromise, which failed to happen following the Orange Revolution, he says.

"We [partly] got into this [crisis] because post-Orange politics after the Orange Revolution of 2004 was a terrible failure," Amar says. "That then-camp of winners, the Orange camp, destroyed themselves and that must not be repeated."

As for Sipigina, she says she wants Klitschko to be given a chance, but adds many in the movement have not found any one opposition figure that appealing.

"The problem … from the very beginning [was] that we have no leader who we really truly believe [that] yes this could be a president."

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Al Jazeera
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