KIEV, Ukraine — As protests roiled Ukraine’s capital and exploded into violence, Yulia Tymoshenko’s face, topped by her blond 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, were the only way Tymoshenko could be there. Until Saturday, she had been imprisoned for more than two years serving a sentence widely regarded as an act of vengeance by her arch foe, President Viktor Yanukovych.
Her return brings 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, 53, became a world figure during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution protests of 2004, a riveting figure for her ringing denunciations of election fraud and her distinctive mix of peasant hair and high-fashion dresses.
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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 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 while she was premier in a natural-gas deal with Russia. Tymoshenko said the proceedings were 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 a high-profile figure. 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 while behind bars, she remained a top opposition figure, and after her release Saturday, a crowd of 50,000 gathered to cheer her arrival and listen to her at Kiev’s Independence Square.