Sporting her trademark blonde braid, the 53-year-old was seen being driven out of the hospital in the city of Kharkiv where she had spent much of her 30-month confinement. She was reportedly on her way to address supporters on Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
“Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky as a dictatorship has ended,” she told reporters outside the prison, as supporters chanted her name.
Ms. Tymoshenko’s release is just the latest in a string of setbacks for her political archenemy Viktor Yanukovych, who on Saturday was stripped of his presidency by the opposition-controlled parliament in a move of unclear constitutionality. Mr. Yanukovych fled the capital on Friday, and on Saturday his office and residences were occupied by antigovernment protesters he had tried earlier in the week to violently disperse.
In a televised address on Saturday, Mr. Yanukovych vowed to remain in office and said the new laws passed by parliament had no legality since he would refuse to sign them. He called the opposition’s takeover of Kiev an illegal “coup d’état,” and raised the spectre of rival governments taking shape by saying he would remain in the Russian-speaking east of the country.
Ms. Tymoshenko – freed after parliament passed a motion decriminalizing the “abuse of power” charge she was jailed under – immediately becomes the de facto new leader of the movement that has ousted Mr. Yanukovych.
She appears to be in no mood for compromise with Mr. Yanukovych, who many believe had her jailed to take her out of the running for the 2015 presidential election that has now been moved up to May 25.
In a Feb. 4 letter smuggled out of her penal colony near the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ms. Tymoshenko urged the opposition against any kind of deal with the regime. “The most sure and effective way is to help Ukraine lead the uprising to victory, until the unconditional capitulation of Yanukovych,” the letter reads. “I gave you a plan of action. Act! I believe that there is no way to end the dictatorship except by a peaceful all-encompassing popular uprising.”
Earlier, the 53-year-old Ms. Tymoshenko went on a 12-day prison hunger strike in solidarity with the antigovernment protesters.
Though tainted by allegations of corruption and her unsightly power struggle with then-president Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution Ms. Tymoshenko retains a large bloc of wildly loyal followers. Even while she was in jail, opinion polls put her neck-and-neck with heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko as the most popular opposition leader.
Now that Ms. Tymoshenko is free and seen as a political martyr, even Mr. Klitschko will likely have to stand aside for the 53-year-old, who before turning to politics ran a gas transit company that controversially made her one of the richest women in Ukraine.
Throughout the protests in Kiev, an oversized portrait of Ms. Tymoshenko has been affixed to a giant undecorated metal Christmas tree in the middle of Independence Square. Demonstrators have frequently complained of a lack of decisiveness among their committee of leaders, with many wondering how Ms. Tymoshenko would have handled the crisis.
Ms. Tymoshenko helped shove Mr. Yanukovych from office in 2004, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to support Mr. Yushchenko after Mr. Yanukovych was initially declared the winner of an election tainted by massive fraud. When he finally became president, Mr. Yushchenko made Ms. Tymoshenko Ukraine’s first female prime minister.
But Ms. Tymoshenko wanted to move Ukraine farther and faster towards the West than the more cautious Mr. Yushchenko would allow. In the eyes of Ms. Tymoshenko, one of Mr. Yushchenko’s biggest failing was his willingness to work with Mr. Yanukovych, a man she has repeatedly called a criminal.
She also seemed uncomfortable with playing second fiddle, and desirous of Mr. Yushchenko’s job. The Orange coalition fell apart, and Ms. Tymoshenko went back into opposition.
Bitterness between the two Orange Revolution leaders was such that both ran for the presidency in 2010, splitting the pro-Western ranks and helping Mr. Yanukovych take power.
Three months after Mr. Yanukovych’s victory, the prosecutor’s office began investigating an array of allegations against Ms. Tymoshenko, at one point opening 10 separate investigations into her conduct before and during her two terms as prime minister.
She was convicted in October 2011 of overstepping her power in signing a controversial deal to buy Russian natural gas, and she was sentenced to seven years in jail. In a rare moment of agreement over Ukraine, the trial was condemned by both Russia and the West.
Despite bouts of illness and claims of rough treatment while in prison, Ms. Tymoshenko wrote in a December letter that the experience had strengthened her. “Political prisoners, being in captivity, develop enough internal freedom to fill the world three times over.”