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The former prime minister vows to return Crimea from Russian rule, but some believe her time has passed.
KYIV, Ukraine — “Good day. I’m back. In every way.”
That’s what Yulia Tymoshenko tweeted when she returned here from medical treatment in Germany last week.
Now Ukraine’s most visible politician is about to make her professional comeback by running for president this spring.
A fiery two-time former prime minister and one of the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko has spent the last two and a half years in prison, where she was serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office.
Her supporters say her jailing — for a natural gas deal she signed with Russia — was political revenge by her longtime nemesis Victor Yanukovych, the former Moscow-backed president who was ousted last month after three months of street protests.
One of parliament’s first decisions was to vote to release Tymoshenko, who left prison the same day Yanukovych fled the country.
Speaking today during her first news conference since then, she said she is best suited to lead a recovery from the country’s deep economic crisis and political instability.
"No politician understands the depth of lawlessness and no one wants to end it as desperately as I do," she said, sitting behind a desk outside her party’s headquarters.
However, few give her a realistic chance of becoming president in the election scheduled for May 25. Although she lost the presidency to Yanukovych in 2010 by a hair, how the seasoned politician will fit into the new realities of post-revolutionary Ukraine remains far from clear.
She heads Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland, the second-largest political party in parliament, but she’s not an MP herself. In the month since her release from prison in a wheelchair, she’s largely remained out of the limelight after addressing protesters on the Maidan, or Independence Square, where she was given a mixed reception.
Opinion polls put her behind frontrunner Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire known as the chocolate king, and Vitaliy Klitschko, a champion boxer-turned opposition leader.
Nevertheless, she’s come out fighting.
Speaking on a popular political talk show last week, she lashed out against her old punching bag, Yanukovych. His regime “tried to break my spine physically and psychologically,” she said. “They only succeeded physically.”
Most striking was the change in Tymoshenko’s appearance. She traded in the trademark braid she’s worn for the past decade for a simple formal updo and a white oxford shirt instead of the form-fitting pencil dresses and suits she wore before her time in prison.
Seated in the middle of the studio, her crutches held by an assistant, Tymoshenko spoke resolutely about the standoff with Russia.
“I’m absolutely sure we will get Crimea back,” she told the audience. “It will happen soon.”
She repeated that hope today.
Although she has the benefit of being the country’s best-known politician, she’s also a symbol of the “Orange” pre-Yanukovych leadership, which failed to deliver on promises of reform and remained mired in bitter infighting between its main figures.
She’s also tainted by a reputation for corruption from the 1990s, when she earned many millions in the shady natural gas trading business and earned herself the nickname “gas princess.”
And she’s never shied away from controversy.
The latest involved a phone conversation leaked this week. Speaking to a member of parliament on tape posted to YouTube, she derided Russia, saying it should be destroyed for annexing of Crimea.
“No f***ing way they would get Crimea from me,” she says, adding that she would shoot at Russian forces in Crimea herself.
Although Tymoshenko admitted the phone call took place, she accused Russian security forces of doctoring the tape to make her say that nuclear weapons should be used against ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine.
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It’s not clear how her strong-willed reputation will play this time around.
“She’s presenting herself as the Ukrainian Churchill,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kyiv-based Penta political research center.
Despite her popularity ratings, no one’s ruling Tymoshenko out yet.
Twenty-five year-old Oleksandr Kravchenko, who actively participated in the recent street protests, says although he’s not impressed by the rebranded Tymoshenko, he expects her to become popular again.
“She can speak really well, and she’s a good actress,” he says. “She can persuade people that she is what Ukraine needs now.”
Meanwhile, her supporters praise her image as a strong woman and dismiss concerns about her pre-prison biography.
“I believe that if anyone can get Crimea back, it’s her,” says retiree Liudmila Fomenko.
“Women are good at putting things in order, and that’s what Ukraine needs right now,” she says. “Tymoshenko isn’t perfect, but she may be the best shot we have.”