The Ukrainian president fled his palace outside Kiev this weekend, and his whereabouts are unknown. On the same day he left, 300 miles west of the capital, his archrival was released from a prison hospital.
The timing was no accident. The same opposition movement that drove President Viktor Yanukovych out on Saturday led to a revision of the country’s criminal code, setting former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko free after she served two and a half years for abuse of power.
Tymoshenko headed right to Independence Square, where pro-Western citizens and police have been locked in deadly conflict over the Ukrainian government’s strong allegiance to Russia and weak ties to the European Union.
“After what you did, Ukraine is already yours,” Tymoshenko, in a wheelchair due to severe back pain, told the 50,000 people gathered there. She called them “heroes.”
Then, she switched gears. “Starting today, I am getting back to work,” she said. “I will not a miss a moment to make sure that you feel happy in your own land.”
Tymoshenko’s teary-eyed speech in Independence Square sounded to many like a prelude to a presidential campaign, and rumors are already swirling that she will run in the newly announced elections in May. Her supporters in the opposition are energized about building her campaign. But meanwhile, her spokeswoman tells The New York Times that “it’s not time for this.”
Tymoshenko’s detractors couldn’t agree more.
Tymoshenko, famous for her bright, blond locks and trademark peasant braid, is a polarizing figure in Ukraine, a politician with authoritarian tendencies who many say is just as corrupt and power-hungry as the rest of them. “Putin with a braid,” Julia Ioffe writes in The New Republic.
“You can’t stop her in any normal political way,” Dmitry Vydrin, who was Tymoshenko’s close adviser for nearly a decade, told Ioffe in a deeply reported 2010 story about the politician. “You can’t beat her on TV, you can’t out-argue her on the town square. If she had more biological time on earth, she’d become president of the Ukraine, president of the E.U., president of the U.S. The only thing that can stop her is Tymoshenko herself.”
Tymoshenko, he said, believes she is the reincarnation of Eva Perón, the former Argentine first lady who used her beauty and charisma to climb the political social ladder. “She copies her consciously and subconsciously,” Vydrin said.
Long before she spoke in front of the opposition movement, Tymoshenko was a brunette who spoke Russian rather than Ukrainian and grew up poor. In the 1990s, she struck it rich in the country’s notoriously corrupt gas industry, garnering the nickname “Gas Princess.” She was once arrested after being accused of forging documents for a gas deal, but the charges didn’t stick. (Pavlo Lazarenko, her former business partner and onetime prime minister, was convicted in the United States of money laundering, corruption, and fraud within the gas sector.)
Tymoshenko was elected to parliament in 1996, and then served as deputy prime minister for the fuel and energy sector under then-President Viktor Yushchenko in 1999. After winning the November 2004 election — a rigged race that was first called for Yanukovych and prompted widespread protests, known as the Orange Revolution — Yushchenko appointed Tymoshenko prime minister. The pair’s relationship quickly devolved into bickering, and the president, jealous of Tymoshenko’s growing popularity, kicked her out of his administration and invited Yanukovych to replace her.
The decision did not slow Tymoshenko down, and she campaigned in the parliament. She formed her own party, lobbied her parliamentary enemies for support, and, two months later, after several negotiations with the Ukrainian government, managed to win her prime minister’s spot back.
Then came the 2010 elections. Ukraine was deep in a two-year-old economic recession, and the spark of revolution had fizzled out. Its citizens, desperate for improvement in their daily lives, voted in the now-ousted Yanukovych, a politician whose own political past was marked by jail time. Tymoshenko, one of his opponents in the race, and her party boycotted his inauguration. Once in office, Yanukovych exacted his revenge. Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office tried and sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for abuse of power and embezzlement for brokering a controversial gas deal with Russia.
In 2009, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he felt “comfortable” working with Tymoshenko. But that was before Ukraine came teetering on the edge of civil war, threatening Putin’s hold over the former Soviet country. Now, Tymoshenko is stoking the blaze of a political revolution.
Whether she’ll be the one feeding the fire in the long term remains to be seen. The crowd’s reaction to her Saturday appearance in Independence Square was enthusiastic but subdued enough to suggest skepticism, especially from the country’s liberals. The people won’t lunge to accept her, but Tymoshenko, a shrewd operative, likely knows that. The presidency is still far beyond her — or anyone’s — reach, but Tymoshenko is back, and she looks ready to coax the embers back into a dying flame.