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[Newsmaker] Freed Ukrainian icon coy on next steps

Newly freed Ukrainian opposition icon and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko delivers a speech on Kiev's Independance square on February 22, 2014, after her release. (AFP)
Newly freed Ukrainian opposition icon and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko delivers a speech on Kiev's Independance square on February 22, 2014, after her release. (AFP)
Thrust to centre stage in Ukraine’s fast-moving political drama, the hugely charismatic but equally divisive Yulia Tymoshenko has remained coy about her political future after being set free by parliament.

The fiery 53-year-old, who was jailed after losing to Viktor Yanukovych by a razor-thin margin in a 2010 presidential poll, walked free on Saturday in the latest dramatic twist to antigovernment unrest that had swept Ukraine for more than three months and left scores dead.

The former pro-Western prime minister, who was the undisputed star of the 2004 Orange Revolution, was met by rapturous crowds when she emerged, wheelchair bound because of chronic back pain, onstage in Kiev’s Independence Square.

She is widely seen as the most popular figure in the fractured Ukrainian opposition movement ― a politician of world standing with the experience to both contest and win the presidential election that parliament has set for May 25.

But even as other opposition leaders made comments that seemed to clear the road for a run by Tymoshenko for presidency, the woman most Ukrainians simply refer to as “Yulia” took pains to play down her ambitions on her first full day of freedom.

First, she ruled out a run for prime minister ― a post she has held twice before ― in the new coalition government of interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov, one of her closest allies.

“Information that I was being considered for the post of prime minister of Ukraine came as a surprise. This issue was not agreed or discussed with me,” she said in a statement released by her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.

In fact many protesters, having braved months of freezing temperatures and periods of brutal police violence in order to forge a new Ukraine, would be happy if Tymoshenko remained out of politics altogether.

A telegenic but steely figure, she is closely associated with the corrupt and tumultuous years that followed the collapse of Soviet rule in the 1990s, dogged by suspicions of personal enrichment and opportunism.

“We expect nothing good from Tymoshenko, unfortunately,” said a woman who only gave her first name, Svetlana, when interviewed by AFP in the square.

Another anti-government protester called Ruslan said: “What she did before was not good for the country. We hope that after her imprisonment, she will change her opinions.”

Just hours before Saturday’s public appearance, Tymoshenko had been under guard in a hospital in the industrial eastern city of Kharkiv, serving a seven-year sentence for “abuse of power” she received in 2011 after her arch-rival Yanukovych came to power.

A slender blonde known for wearing her long hair in an elaborately braided crown, Tymoshenko’s looks belie an unbending temperament that has been compared to that of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher ― one of her heroines.

Sometimes referred to as the “Iron Lady,” after Thatcher, Tymoshenko was a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the annulment of elections initially awarded to Yanukovych.

She challenged Yanukovych in a bitterly contested 2010 presidential election, losing in a runoff and then finding herself the target of a string of criminal investigations she claimed were aimed at eliminating her from politics. (AFP)