With her trademark peasant braids and fiery talk of radical change, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has come roaring back from the political wilderness. After producing a stunning upset in Ukraine's emergency parliamentary polls last week, she is poised to retake the prime ministry as head of a fresh Western-leaning Orange coalition.
Her momentum gives the flagging pro-democracy Orange Revolution a new lease on life after more than a year of political stalemate. But despite this, many Ukrainian political players are wary of Ms. Tymoshenko's return – even her recently reconciled ally, President Viktor Yushchenko.
"There is a rational basis for Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to cooperate in the long term, to revive the stalled Orange agenda" of making sweeping market reforms and bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and NATO, says Oleksandr Sushko, an analyst with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "This is a moment in which many things that have been on hold might become possible again."
Yet as coalition talks in Kiev drag into their second week, there is an unmistakable note of worry over the imminent return of Tymoshenko to government.
"Tymoshenko constantly demands full and total power," says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, an independent Kiev think tank, and a former member of Tymoshenko's campaign team. "She has a high level of personal charisma, but she also tends to be a demagogue. She can't make compromises, she can't manage a partnership. Her personality is too strong."
Over the weekend, Mr. Yushchenko, who fired Tymoshenko a few months into her prime ministerial term in 2005, seemed to be already seeking to curb her authority, perhaps by stacking any future government with members of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's pro-Moscow Party of Regions.
"We have to involve the opposition in forming [the government]," he told the German magazine Focus. To a French TV station he said: "One must take into account that [Yanukovich] received one-third of the votes in the election."
Indeed, Mr. Yanukovich came first with 34 percent – almost equal to his support in 2006 polls – in final results announced Friday. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement also remained flat with 14.2 percent. By contrast, Tymoshenko's electoral bloc, BYuT (Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko), struck a chord with politically exhausted Ukrainians. It increased its popular vote by nearly 10 percent, to 31 percent, creating an unprecedented opening for BYuT and Our Ukraine to form a stand-alone Orange coalition, albeit with a razor-thin majority of just 228 seats in the 450-seat Supreme Rada.
Raised in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Tymoshenko reportedly made a fortune as head of the country's biggest fuel trader in the 1990s, earning the nickname of "Gas Princess."
After going into politics in the late '90s, Tymoshenko cast herself as a staunch liberal reformer, corruption fighter, and Ukrainian patriot. One of her former imagemakers, Mr. Nebozhenko, says she studied Ukrainian for 12 hours a day for months, until she was fit to carry on parliamentary debates in a language she had never previously spoken on a daily basis.
While serving as deputy prime minister in 2001, Tymoshenko was imprisoned for several weeks on accusations of forgery and smuggling during her earlier business career. Those charges, which she described as fabrications of her political enemies, were later dropped, as was a Russian warrant for her arrest.
Tymoshenko rocketed to prominence as Yushchenko's chief ally in the "Orange Revolution," three weeks of non-stop demonstrations in Kiev's freezing central square that led to Yanukovich's fradulent presidential victory being overturned. A powerful orator, she would warm up crowds and then hand the stage over to the more lackluster Yushchenko. The formula worked: Yushchenko became president with Tymoshenko as his prime minister.
But their postrevolutionary honeymoon collapsed amid squabbling over the pace of privatization and faltering economic growth, which plummeted under her stewardship from 12 percent in 2004 to just 2 percent the next year.
Alexander Dergachov, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Ethno-Social Studies in Kiev, says it's hard to judge Tymoshenko's performance as premier, "since she had little freedom to act." Still, he adds, "She has yet to prove that she can leave the streets and work effectively in government."
Many experts predict that a fresh Tymoshenko prime ministership could result in moving forward presidential elections now slated for 2009. If Yushchenko remains unpopular, Tymoshenko would probably be up against Yanukovich, the pro-Russia champion who has – with the help of US consultants – overhauled his image into that of a Western-style politician.
Tymoshenko – who, ahead of last week's polls, held over 300 election meetings and visited every region of Ukraine in little more than a month – is likely to give him a run for his money.
"Every election campaign involving Tymoshenko resembles a military operation," says Nikolai Zhupylo, a social psychologist with the independent Socionika Center in Lvov, Ukraine. "She can't live without struggle."