A Thief or Persecuted Opposition Hero?

APSupporters of Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko listening to her speak at an election campaign rally in Kiev on Friday.
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- Yulia Tymoshenko may be Ukraine's richest woman and the most-recognized candidate in the parliamentary elections. She has bold style advisers and bottomless reserves of steely charisma.

Yet the party she leads may have trouble scraping together even 4 percent of Sunday's vote, the hurdle it must clear to make it into the next legislature.

Tymoshenko's troubles, analysts say, sprout from what ails Ukraine a decade after winning independence: corruption, political favoritism and a deepening chasm between rich and poor.

Tymoshenko paints herself as a persecuted opposition hero. She says President Leonid Kuchma and his cronies pressured prosecutors to blacken her name and restricted her access to national television and key newspapers.

Tymoshenko's foes, however, say she's among the country's most corrupt individuals, an unlikely dissident who collaborated with Kuchma when it served her ambitions.

An economist from the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, the stylish 41-year-old was stumping relentlessly around Ukraine ahead of the vote, melding friendly charm with an iron drive to woo voters.

"They're afraid of our victory," Tymoshenko said in her campaign bus after a rally last week in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, referring to the president's administration and a coterie of influential tycoons known as Ukraine's oligarchs. "It is mortally dangerous for their jobs, for their interests, for their wealth."

Tymoshenko soared to fame in the 1990s as head of Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems, a conglomerate with close ties to then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and a juicy share of the natural gas market. She later became deputy prime minister, where she pushed through reforms of the energy sector that angered many influential tycoons.

Western investors hailed the changes, but some economists said they merely redistributed the industry's riches in favor of Tymoshenko's allies. She was ousted from government in 2000 and turned fiercely against Kuchma.

She pledges to hold government officials accountable for deals that fatten elites but leave the masses hungry. Yet she was once one of those hated elites.

"Public opinion thinks she's a thief. She portrays herself as Joan of Arc, an opposition darling, but the people don't believe it," said Vladimir Malenkovich, director of Kiev's Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research.

Tymoshenko says she is being persecuted for promoting a market economy. "People ask where I hide my billions. I have nothing to hide. Is it a crime to run a business effectively?" she said.

A year ago, she was arrested on corruption charges dating back to her days as a gas magnate; the charges were dropped but the investigation continues.

Her supporters include dissidents from disparate camps. She recently reached out to more traditional voters with an unusual ploy: a new hairstyle.

Gone are her loose-hanging locks. In their place is a tightly woven braid swept over her head -- a style obvious to any Ukrainian as that worn by nationalist folk hero Lesya Ukrainka.