Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko back on stage, but this revolution happened without her

February 24

Throughout the three months of protest on Independence Square, one face has looked down day and night on the comings and goings of all the thousands of demonstrators: Yulia Tymoshenko’s, featured on a large banner near the speakers’ stage.

Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution of 2004, now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s arch-nemesis and the most famous prisoner in Ukraine, was the missing voice on the Maidan, as the square is popularly known.

But that looming reminder, portraying her with her signature peasant-style braid, did not sit well with everyone in the opposition. No one doubted that she had been unfairly convicted in a politically motivated prosecution launched by Yanukovych, and support for her release from a prison hospital was widespread.

Yet when Tymoshenko, 53, appeared on the Maidan on Saturday night, after her release, the welcome was lukewarm.

She is old news, for one thing. She grew rich from the natural gas trade in the 1990s — at a time when that would have been virtually impossible for anyone who played strictly by the rules — and her melodramatic squabbling with allies after 2004 helped to wreck the legacy of the Orange Revolution.

“Nobody could do it — not other countries, nobody — could do what you have done. We’ve eliminated this cancer, this tumor,” she said Saturday night as she spoke from a wheelchair on the protest stage, looking haggard after 2 1 / 2 years as a convict. An apparently serious back problem kept her in the hospital for much of that time.

But was Tymoshenko justified in taking a share of the credit for Yanukovych’s ouster? Had she helped to eliminate the cancer?

Over the past three months, she issued fiery written pronouncements, urging the opposition not to give in and not to compromise. But the decisions were made on the Maidan, by the people actually facing Yanukovych’s police.

Yuri Lutsenko, who once served as interior minister when Tymoshenko was prime minister and who did time in prison after Yanukovych came to power in 2010, has argued that it is important to get it right this time around — that this is not a reprise of 2004. If this is a truly revolutionary moment, he says, it calls for fresh faces.

Alyona Vershinina, a blogger on the Ekho Moskvy Web site in Russia, suggested that what Ukraine needs now more than anything is someone with “moral authority,” not the checkered past of Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko’s popularity isn’t what it once was, but her remaining supporters are fervid. A diplomat here once called her the Sarah Palin of Ukraine. There are no neutral feelings about her. The bouts of indecision and less-than-inspiring rhetoric of the three main opposition leaders on the Maidan revived an old joke about Tymoshenko — that she is the only man in Ukrainian politics.

On Sunday, her Fatherland party — headquartered in a heavily fortified complex that has portraits of her on every gleaming marble wall — issued a statement saying she did not wish to be considered for the post of prime minister in the new government. That may be sincere, or it could be a bit of posturing.

The loser of the Orange Revolution was Yanukovych, who was initially declared the next president of Ukraine after an egregiously rigged election. Yanukovych had the active support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when the results were overturned and he lost a new election, it was a stinging defeat for Moscow.

Viktor Yushchenko became president, and Tymoshenko prime minister. The two had a falling-out, which eventually led to the collapse of their movement. Tymo­shenko never pursued the sort of legal reforms that might have kept her from going to prison once prosecutors went after her. Surprisingly, Putin came to respect her.

In 2009, she bargained a new deal on natural gas purchases from Russia, under which Ukraine paid a higher price but a middleman with connections to Yanukovych and Gazprom, the giant Russian natural gas company, was eliminated. When Ukrainians, disillusioned by reformers, elected Yanukovych president a year later in a fairly honest vote, he used the gas deal as the basis for prosecuting her on charges of misuse of office.

She was convicted and sentenced to seven years. Yanukovych once said she might have to face additional charges — of murder.

European and American diplomats protested the “selective justice” that had targeted her and a handful of subordinates. Putin urged Yanukovych to release her. Time and again, Yanukovych, who seemed to be obsessed by Tymoshenko, appeared to be on the verge of allowing her to go to Germany for medical treatment, but it never happened. One reason he may have spurned a trade agreement with the European Union in November — the act that kicked off the Maidan protests — was that Europe was insisting on her release as a condition.

Unlike another rich person who spent years in prison before being released — Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky — ­Tymoshenko has not claimed to have grown from the experience. She has not dwelt on her own shortcomings.

But as Sonia Koshkina, editor of the news Web site LB.ua, wrote Sunday: “The Maidan stood and stands for freedom, human rights, protection of the honor and dignity of the person, the right to defense. And these are what she had been deprived of.”

Tymoshenko’s treatment by the reviled Yanukovych, in other words, was emblematic of his rule and gives her a claim on the story of the Maidan.

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