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Ukraine's First Woman Prime Minister

Friday, 23 September 2005 12:00 AM

Next week, a woman will become president of the United States – on television.

In real life, Hillary Clinton leads every public poll for the Democratic nomination for president – and her candidacy will be the most important test of women's equality in my generation, precisely because so many Americans aren't ready for a woman president yet.

But while I would argue that women have a special obligation to support her for just that reason, unfortunately, it doesn't mean that women are necessarily better leaders.

Last week, in Kiev, the first woman prime minister of Ukraine got fired, amid charges of corruption that would be unimaginable here – a "virtuoso liar," she was called on one local television show. The "Wicked Witch of Kiev" would be more like it.

Ask Americans in an opinion poll if they're ready for a woman president, as the White House Project and the Sienna College Research Institute did last year, and three quarters or more will give you the answer you want to hear. What do you expect them to say?

So as any good pollster will tell you, if you want the truth, ask them about their neighbors. Are other people ready for a woman president? If you do that, the number of Americans who think that their neighbors are so inclined drops to two-thirds, which is a more accurate measure, at least of the starting point.

What they're afraid of, very clearly, is a woman like Yulia Tymoshenko. The just-ousted prime minister and now primary rival to power of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko started out in last year's famous "Orange Revolution" as a popular reformer and populist leader.

She was a beautiful and successful businesswoman, ambitious and attractive, widely described in the press as a firebrand. But she didn't earn her money the old-fashioned way – well, maybe she did.

Upon taking office, she made decisions that caused huge conflicts: ruling that all 3,000 "privatizations" – sales of assets by the prior government to private parties – should be reviewed and trying to freeze gas prices, with oil prices rising, creating a fuel shortage.

To many outsiders, those decisions confirmed fears that Ukraine would become hostile to private investment and unable to make the transition to a capitalist economy. Within Ukraine, they became the backdrop for the internal intrigue between the various wealthy players who control the major assets in the country as to whether and at what price the largest privatizations of the previous administration would be reviewed.

That would all be part of the transition to a market economy, were the government officials acting on behalf of the people as honest brokers, and not as Tymoshenko reportedly did, as a player seeking to make a profit for her own side.

Tymoshenko wears her hair parted like a peasant girl, but she buys her own jewelry – and she can afford the best. She lives in a very large glass house, if you know what I mean. Luckily for her, it isn't in this country.

She made her billions when her close friend and mentor, the much-married and now convicted former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, had this idea about creating regional gas monopolies. And while lots of Ukrainians were shivering and starving, Yulia Tymoshenko started one.

According to author Matthew Brezinzki, Yulia ended up with nearly 20 percent of Ukraine's Gross Domestic Product. She also had her own fleet of private planes at 36.

Earlier this year, Lazarenko went on trial for money-laundering in Northern California, and Tymoshenko's name was all over the case. No one disputed that almost $200 million passed from her accounts to his while he was steering those contracts to her that made her a billionaire. Indeed, it was after Lazarenko fell out of favor, and was charged with corruption, that she originally became a populist.

During the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko literally held hands with Viktor Yuschenko and came to symbolize the people's revolution. Even then, however, notwithstanding her rhetoric, there were articles questioning exactly who the billionaire "gas princess" really was. There were also articles about her changing hair color, not to mention the fake braid.

Dick Morris couldn't do a makeover like this.

Nonetheless, she was sufficiently successful to achieve the position of the country's first woman prime minister – and she seems determined to get it back.

Geena Davis is the president from central casting, literally. Yulia Tymoshenko is the one from the League of Women Voters' nightmares. She has been charged – or unindicted but could have been charged – with almost every crime that the Hillary Haters have ever gratuitously thrown at her short of murder: fraud, conspiracy, corruption, theft ... and in Yulia's case, there's reason to believe the charges are true.

Should Ukraine's voters return her because she is a woman? Of course not. They gave her a chance. That's all American women want. On television, and in real life.



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Next week, a woman will become president of the United States on television. In real life, Hillary Clinton leads every public poll for the Democratic nomination for president and her candidacy will be the most important test of women's equality in my generation,...
Friday, 23 September 2005 12:00 AM
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