Skip to main content

Anti-government protesters march on a street in front a banner with portrait of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in central Kiev February 8, 2014. President Viktor Yanukovych suffered a huge setback when Ukraine’s parliament voted 310 to zero to free former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison.Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Back in November, before Ukraine's crisis turned bloody, President Viktor Yanukovych seemed ready to do what had been unthinkable for him: turn his back on his allies in Moscow in favour of closer integration with the European Union.

The EU trade deal fell apart under heavy pressure from the Kremlin, but not before Mr. Yanukovych made it clear there was one condition he wouldn't meet – the EU demand that he release his archenemy, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison.

Now, the golden-braided heroine of the Orange Revolution looks to be on her way to freedom after a 30-month incarceration that many inside and outside Ukraine view as politically motivated. An already deeply acrimonious struggle over the future of Ukraine could soon get very personal.

Friday was a day of concessions and setbacks for Mr. Yanukovych. But the harshest blow might have come when Ukraine's parliament, now controlled by the opposition after a string of defections from Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions, passed a law decriminalizing the "abuse of power" charge Mr. Yanukovych had used to jail Ms. Tymoshenko in 2011. Deputies chanted "Free Yulia! Free Yulia!" after the vote, which passed 310-0.

Mr. Yanukovych now has 15 days to sign the legislation, and it's far from certain that he will. If he doesn't, it could unravel Ukraine's temporary peace.

If Ms. Tymoshenko is freed, Ukraine's opposition – currently led by an awkward trifecta of politicians – will immediately have a new de facto leader. And Mr. Yanukovych will again be facing a foe he knows will be in no mood for compromise or forgiveness.

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 President. "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.

If she were freed, even Mr. Klitschko might have to stand aside for the 53-year-old Ms. Tymoshenko, who once 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."

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon