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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Charismatic Top Banker Is Ukraine Success Story

KIEV -- The man heading Ukraine's central bank is credited with fathering the hryvnia currency and engineering the few economic success stories the former Soviet republic can claim after six years of independence.

But Viktor Yushchenko, 43, is much more than an average banker, enjoying a popularity so widespread among Ukraine's 50 million population that he has been named more than once as a potential presidential candidate.

"He is the most popular figure in Ukraine, bar none," a Western diplomat said.

"He's got a personality, which is different from most officials in Ukraine. He has beliefs, too. This works well with Ukrainians," he said, adding the governor's dashing looks have boosted his popularity with the female half of the population.

Yushchenko also climbs mountains, helps orphans, paints landscapes, runs committees to rebuild churches destroyed in Soviet times and is an accomplished gardener and cook.

"I don't run away from work. I love work and I know it must be done," said Yushchenko, 43, sipping tea in the cavernous office he has occupied since 1993 in the turn-of-the-century central bank building in the capital.

"These other activities are just ways of enhancing my professional activities," he said, adding the hobbies packed between long days, work-filled weekends and international travel are also a way of staying sane.

Ukraine, which launched its economic reform program in 1994, has been a disappointment to Western funding bodies, foreign investors and its own citizens.

But Yushchenko, a committed reformer, has won the confidence of the International Monetary Fund, implementing tight monetary policies that braked inflation to 10 percent last year from a whopping 10,000 percent when he entered office in 1993.

He has presided over the introduction of the hryvnia -- the name of a currency first used 1,000 years ago in the Kiev Rus empire. It was introduced in 1996 when Ukraine celebrated the fifth anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.

Yushchenko grits his teeth when shopping at markets and hearing Ukrainians call the hryvnia -- which replaced the interim karbovanets currency -- the ruble.

"After decades, people are immersed in this: ruble, ruble, ruble," Yushchenko said, recalling years of rule from Moscow. "The currency of the National Bank of Ukraine is the hryvnia."

At news conferences, Yushchenko is often more poet than central banker, peppering discourses on hryvnia stability with phrases like "harmony of finances" and "piquant markets."

Although he has said he is just a banker and has denied political aspirations, refusing Kuchma's request to become prime minister last year, others are not so sure.

"I wouldn't exclude it at the point he feels conditions are right," a diplomat said, adding that Yushchenko maintains close ties with parliament's deputies and even enjoys the support of the leftist parliamentary speaker, Alexander Moroz.