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Yulia Tymoshenko walks out of prison, and back into Ukrainian politics

By Faith Karimi, CNN
February 23, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "I'm the guarantor of that Ukraine," she tells a crowd
  • She has had a complicated relationship with Yanukovych
  • She was imprisoned for signing a gas deal with Russia

(CNN) -- With her distinctive sleek braid and fiery oratory, Yulia Tymoshenko is back in the center stage of Ukraine politics. And it's almost like she never left.

Tymoshenko, 53, was freed from prison Saturday after two-and-a-half years, most of them spent in a detention hospital.

Dressed in black, she later emerged at Kiev's Independence Square in a wheel chair. Cheers erupted.

Tearfully, she hailed the sea of protesters, who listened and occasionally waved.

President Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, appears to be gone from the capital, though it is unclear if he plans to resign. The wave of unrest in Ukraine began in November, when Yanukovych scrapped a European Union trade deal and turned toward Russia. Part of the deal was to release his political opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. President Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, appears to be gone from the capital, though it is unclear if he plans to resign. The wave of unrest in Ukraine began in November, when Yanukovych scrapped a European Union trade deal and turned toward Russia. Part of the deal was to release his political opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
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Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months.
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"Today, Ukraine has finished with this terrible dictator," she said, referring to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

She then passed on a not-so-subtle message.

"There'll be no Ukraine but the Ukraine you want," she said. "And I'm the guarantor of that Ukraine."

The polarizing former Prime Minister has a complicated relationship with Yanukovych, who fled the capital Saturday after days of bloody protests that killed dozens.

Both have dominated the nation's politics for years. Both have a rivalry that dates years.

READ MORE: Who's in charge of Ukraine?

Rise and fall

Tymoshenko was born in 1960 in Dnipropetrovsk.

Before she joined politics, she worked in the gas industry, including a stint as president of an energy company in the 1990s.

Her international popularity soared a decade ago as a result of her ardent speeches that helped overturn Yanukovych's presidential win in 2004. She's considered a hero of the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, a wave of peaceful protests that swept her and Viktor Yushchenko into power as Prime Minister and President, respectively.

Track how the crisis unfolded in Ukraine

The same revolution successfully overturned what many believed was a largely false presidential win by Yanukovych.

But the promise of the revolution soon turned sour. The two feuded publicly, prompting Yushchenko to fire her a few months into her term.

In 2007, Tymoshenko was back as Prime Minister. But she was dogged by accusations of irregularities and overlooking the nation's economic problems.

Her tense working relation with Yushchenko did not help their case. Analysts say it was one of the reasons she lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential elections.

Who's who in Ukraine unrest

Forced out

After Yanukovych won that election, Tymoshenko, was forced out of office and into the courtroom. In 2011, she was on trial over a costly natural gas agreement that she signed with Russia while she was Prime Minister.

In October of that year, a Ukrainian court found her guilty of abuse of authority for signing overpriced gas contracts with Russia and sentenced her to seven years in prison.

The prosecutor said the gas deals inflicted damage to the country amounting to more than 1.5 billion hryvnias (almost $190 million at the exchange rate at the time). In addition to the sentence, the court ruled she must repay the money.

Amnesty International slammed the verdict as "politically motivated" and called for the release of Tymoshenko, who was Prime Minister from January to September 2005, and December 2007 to March 2010.

The case against her was widely considered politically motivated, and the United States and other Western nations called her "a political prisoner."

Hunger strike

Her activism work continued while she was behind bars. Two years ago, she went on a hunger strike to draw attention to "violence and lack of rights"after she was allegedly beaten unconscious by guards. She ended her hunger strike after three weeks and agreed to receive medical treatment.

Tymoshenko was freed Saturday after parliament ordered charges against her dropped.

She went from her hospital bed, and into the twists and turns of Ukrainian politics.

20 questions: What's behind Ukraine's political crisis?

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