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Ukraine's Tymoshenko energized by probe

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is back in the limelight in Ukraine after losing last year's presidential election, thanks in part to a widely criticized corruption probe being conducted by the new government.

The heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests lost the vote to longtime foe Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainians grew angry over economic hardships, slow reforms and endless bickering in the Orange camp. But since then the government's investigation into alleged misspending by Tymoshenko and her government has energized and empowered her and her allies.

For some, the probe has transformed her image from a negligent former prime minister who had mismanaged the economy to an icon of hope and people power.

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Tymoshenko called the charges against her "political repression" and said the government's investigation has "simply confirmed that I have worked honestly."

Her confidence is apparent as Tymoshenko, 50, turns up at the prosecutors' office to be questioned again and again in the corruption probe. She emerges confidently from her car, clad in an elegant gray coat, her blond hair braided and wrapped around her head peasant-style. Smiling, she accepts flowers from cheering fans before entering the building.

The United States and the European Union have condemned the investigation as selective prosecution of political opponents, and European officials have criticized a travel ban imposed on Tymoshenko, which prevented her from visiting a conference in Brussels last month.

Pollsters say the probe, and the media attention it has generated, have helped Tymoshenko's party maintain a steady approval rating of 13 percent over the past six months, while the popularity of Yanukovych's Party of Regions sank from 25 percent to 21 percent, thanks to unpopular tax reforms and price increases.

"The role of a victim of an unpopular government makes people sympathize with her," said Yuri Yakimenko, a political analyst with the Razumkov Center, the Kiev-based think-tank that conducted the latest polls. "This keeps her in shape."

During the interview at her office in central Kiev, Tymoshenko said: "The criminal charges that I am now facing, of course, constitute political repression. But on the other hand, it is a rehabilitation of sorts."

The wide-ranging investigation into alleged misspending by Tymoshenko and her government — which has seen more than 10 officials detained and sent others seeking refuge in the West — has helped her cast herself as a martyr and a savior of her country.

"For me, my life path is full of light because it consists of values and a real goal: to help my country get on its feet after the post-Soviet period," she said. "I want to see Ukrainians happy."

Tymoshenko, who already has served twice as prime minister and once as deputy premier, now hopes to take a majority of seats in parliament in next year's election and to run for president in a vote five years away.

Many observers agree that the charges against Tymoshenko look shaky.

She is accused of borrowing $526 million (euro380 million) in environmental funds to pay pensions amid a severe crisis and of misspending $8.4 million (euro6 million) on poorly equipped ambulances for rural hospitals that she allegedly used to drive around her activists. Tymoshenko takes pride in paying the pensions and says the ambulances she bought saved hundreds of thousands of lives in remote villages.

Tymoshenko has made 24 trips to the prosecutor's office in the past three months as part of the probe, the longest interrogation lasting 12 hours.

As press freedoms have waned under Yanukovych, making Tymoshenko a rare face on national television, she has sought to reach out to voters via the Internet.

She started a blog on Twitter last month that quickly ballooned to nearly 8,000 followers. It includes updates on her interrogation, economic analysis and personal news such as her daughter's birthday party and a photo of her jogging with her dog.

Even Yanukovych now appears uneasy.

He told reporters last month he was "annoyed" at Tymoshenko's travel ban and said the corruption investigation should "not be made overly political."

Prosecutors said this week they would allow Tymoshenko to visit her mother in her home city of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine next week to mark Women's Day.

Tymoshenko, who spent 1.5 months in a Kiev jail in 2001 on embezzlement charges that were later overturned, says she will survive if the "mafia" authorities imprison her again.

"I do not anticipate it, but I am not afraid either," she said. "Wherever I am — in their prison or free — I will still carry out my function and this regime will be pushed away from power."

Analysts have said that whatever happens in the corruption probe authorities are unlikely to jail Tymoshenko because that would only boost her popularity even further.