LONDON – The release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from a prison hospital in Kharkiv, where she had been held on trumped-up charges for 30 months, came more quickly than anticipated.
The 53-year-old bitter political rival of President Victor Yanukovych emerged from prison Saturday afternoon in a car with blacked-out windows, which briefly opened to allow her to wave to about 200 supporters. She said to reporters, “Today our whole country can see the sun and the sky, because today the dictatorship fell.”
Tymoshenko immediately headed for the northeastern city’s airport and flew to Kiev for an appearance in Independence Square, where she took the stage in a wheelchair due to a back problem, wrapped in a black jacket with blue and yellow ribbons — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — tied on.
Significantly, prison authorities in Kharkiv, a stronghold of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to which he fled Friday, had acceded to parliament’s orders to release her even as the president decried the “nationalist coup” against him. Her release came after a vote in parliament had ordered corruption charges against her dropped.
Tymoshenko shot to fame with her impassioned speeches against a rigged poll won by Yanukovych in 2004 during the country’s Orange Revolution.
The release of the former prime minister, who had been in prison since 2011, promises to return one of the key figures in Ukraine’s political soap opera to center stage.
She has been a prominent pro-European voice in a country torn between rival allegiances to Moscow and the West. She is loved by her supporters as an unflinching defender of Ukrainian sovereignty and its European future who was ruthlessly punished by Yanukovych for daring to challenge his power.
But for her detractors, Tymoshenko is an unscrupulous political opportunist with no fixed ideas who became enormously rich in the corruption-stained 1990s and deserves what she got.
A slender, telegenic blonde known for wearing her long hair in an elaborately braided crown, Tymoshenko’s looks belie a steely temperament that has been compared to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s — one of her heroines. She is known at home as the “Iron Lady,” after Thatcher, or simply by the Ukrainian word for “she” — “vona.”
The photogenic Tymoshenko has dominated the country’s politics, alongside her onetime rival Viktor Yushchenko and Yanukovych, in the decade since the revolution.
Born in 1960 in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk under Soviet rule, she made her fortune in the gas business, becoming president of the company that had the monopoly on imports from Russia, before going into politics.
Fired as deputy prime minister by President Leonid Kuchma, Tymoshenko came to international prominence in 2004 as one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution. She emerged when Kuchma’s nominated successor, Yanukovych, was accused of stealing the election.
Then she was thrust to the forefront of a political saga marked by twists and rivalries. Yushchenko, then Tymoshenko’s ally, was poisoned by dioxin, which disfigured his face — a poisoning that rivals would later claim he faked.
But after winning the election, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were soon at odds. She accused her old colleague of sexism. She was then fired by Yushchenko, who formed a new alliance with Yanukovych in 2006.
Within a year, Tymoshenko was back as prime minister again. But the next three years were far from a success. Her critics faulted her for her inability to delegate or build consensus, and for failing to come to grips with the country’s economic problems.
The political soap opera — not least her rivalry with Yushchenko — alienated voters, and in the 2010 elections victory went to Yanukovych, this time without allegations of vote-rigging.
A year later, seeking clumsily to remove his popular rival, Yanukovych orchestrated her trial on corruption charges relating to a deal with the Russian exporter Gazprom that saw her sentenced to seven years in prison.
Her jailing, which Tymoshenko argued was the result of a vendetta pursued by Yanukovych and his “family” of close relatives and oligarchs, prompted anger in the West and a crisis in Ukraine’s relations with the European Union.
Seeking to burnish her credentials as Ukraine’s No. 1 champion of EU integration, Tymoshenko said her own fate should not stand in the way of Kiev signing an Association Agreement with the bloc.
When Yanukovych unexpectedly snubbed the deal on Nov. 21 in favor of closer ties with Russia, members of her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party were at the heart of street protests that erupted, and demands for her release remained vocal.
Over the next three months, pro-European demonstrators turned Kiev’s iconic Independence Square into a war zone.
Even from her detention in a prison hospital — where she was moved due to her serious back problems — Tymoshenko played a role in the protests, urging the opposition to stay strong and oust her nemesis.
Analysts say Tymoshenko remains a political force to be reckoned with, although she may now have been surpassed by other opposition leaders such as former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and ally Arseny Yatsenyuk, who spearheaded the Independence Square protests.
What remains unknown is how Tymoshenko will fare if she wins the presidency — her great ambition.
As one analyst, Sergiy Taran, of Kiev’s International Democracy Institute, said in 2012: “She could be a great reformer. Or she could be a dictator.”