KIEV, Ukraine – As protests roiled Ukraine’s capital and exploded into violence, Yulia Tymoshenko’s face, topped by her trademark diadem of blonde peasant braids, overlooked the street mayhem from posters – an oddly ghostly presence for a woman who made her name by being in the thick of opposition action.
The posters, on display near the stage of the protesters’ main camp and on the nearby city Christmas tree, were the only way Tymoshenko could be there. She’s been imprisoned for more than two years serving a sentence widely regarded as an act of vengeance by her arch-foe, President Viktor Yanukovych.
Now Tymoshenko may be just days from a return. Hours after Yanukovych and protest leaders signed a wide-ranging agreement Friday to resolve the country’s political crisis, the parliament that once was in Yanukovych’s pocket approved a measure decriminalizing the charge used to convict Tymoshenko, paving the way for her release.
Freeing her would bring back one of the most polarizing figures in Ukraine’s overheated political scene. She is variously admired as an icon of democracy and detested as a self-promoting manipulator with a shady past.
Tymoshenko became a world figure during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution protests of 2004, a riveting figure both for her ringing denunciations of election fraud and her distinctive mix of peasant hair and high-fashion dresses.
She was more exciting to protesters than her Orange Revolution partner Viktor Yushchenko, who accused the government of stealing his rightful victory in presidential elections. Tymoshenko became prime minister when Yushchenko won a court-ordered election rerun.
Their facade of unity soon shattered in favor of incessant quarrels. Yushchenko fired her after nine months, only for her to regain the premiership in 2007. Unrelenting tensions between them virtually paralyzed the government.
In 2010, Yanukovych rode a wave of voter discontent to oust Tymoshenko from the presidency. He was the very man that Orange Revolution activists believed had stolen power from Yushchenko in the first place six years before.
Tymoshenko’s troubles were only beginning.
In 2011, she was arrested and charged with abusing power as premier in a natural gas deal with Russia. Tymoshenko said the proceedings were naked revenge, and Western governments voiced concern about a politically motivated prosecution.
International criticism of Ukraine grew after she was convicted, received a seven-year sentence, and sent to prison.
Long before achieving global fame, Tymoshenko was already a high-profile figure in Ukraine. She and her husband took early advantage of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms by creating a popular video rental business.
The couple founded a fuel distribution company and she became head of Unified Energy Systems, a wholesale broker of natural gas. In that post, she became one of Ukraine’s richest and most powerful oligarchs — and was dubbed “The Gas Princess.”
Even behind bars, Tymoshenko remained a top opposition figure. In a passionate statement Saturday, she urged Ukrainians to wake up politically, join the protests and force Yanukovych from power.