Will freed opposition leader cause more division in Ukraine?

KIEV — While Yulia Tymoshenko's release from jail has many applauding the righting of a wrong, others worry the divisive and electric "gas princess" will only deepen the turmoil in Ukraine following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich by parliament Saturday.

Already, the 53-year-old Tymoshenko is causing divisions on the street.

"We should be very careful with Tymoshenko now," said Oleksandr Andrushko, a protester from Kiev. "I believe she was imprisoned unlawfully but it doesn't mean she can become a leader of the protest now."

Tymoshenko was born in Dnipropetrovsk, in the east of the country, in 1960. She first entered parliament in 1996, serving as deputy prime minister in 2000.

A multi-millionaire as a result of her leadership in a gas company in the 1990s, she has long down-played her own wealth and instead fashioned herself as a true Ukrainian patriot, sporting a traditional crown of blond braids and peasant-style dresses.

Tymoshenko first came to prominence during Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and 2005. Then, she won over voters with impassioned speeches against an election rigged in favor of Yanukovich in 2004. The revolution that followed brought pro-western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to office as president and resulted in Tymoshenko becoming prime minister.

After falling out with Yushchenko and other former leaders of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko ran for election in 2010 and split the opposition vote, which propelled Yanukovych to the presidency.

Soon after, the president moved to imprison her for seven years on charges that included abuse of office, which the West claimed were trumped up to keep his rival off the political stage.

Upon her release from prison in Kharkiv in the country's east Saturday, she expressed relief and hope for the future.

"No one could do what you have done, eliminate a tumor," she told a crowd at Independence Square in Kiev on Saturday evening. "A dictator is gone and you are the heroes, you are the best of Ukraine. But you may not leave here until you finish the job and we go all the way."

"And now every person in our country must get the kind of life that these people died for," she added, referring to the dozens of protesters killed over the past week by government forces. "I believe in Ukraine."

Tymoshenko is widely expected to run for president in new elections set for May.

"Tymoshenko is what we need now," said Vera Kravchenko, 40, a protester in Kiev. "She will know what to do with the country, she is smart and has the required experience. I think she must occupy some position in the new government."

But some say the elections aren't a shoo-in for Tymoshenko as other opposition leaders are credited with bringing about the president's downfall. Instead, they say, it's time to leave the past behind.

"This protest wasn't about her," said Andrushko. "And personally, I think it would be better to have new faces in government."

Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin.


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