KIEV (AFP) – “Yulia, Yulia!” the crowd chanted on Saturday, Feb 22, 2014, as cameras flashed near the stage on Independence Square in Kiev, signalling to those standing in the damp cold that Ukraine’s freed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko had arrived.
Suddenly, the hero of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution appeared on the podium, in a wheelchair from a back problem, sporting her trademark blonde crown braid, eyes tired and face marked by two-and-a-half years of imprisonment. She was wrapped in a black jacket with ribbons the colour of Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag tied on.
“She’s just like Roosevelt, but she’s indestructible,” gushed demonstrator Tetiana Matvychuk, referring to the US president who had a paralytic illness.
Ms Tymoshenko’s appearance on the stage on Independence Square – a barricaded anti-government enclave occupied since November by protesters who this week fought to the death to protect it – was nothing short of remarkable.
Just a few hours ago, she was still under guard in a hospital in the industrial, eastern city of Kharkiv, serving a seven-year sentence for “abuse of power” she received in 2011 after her arch-foe, President Viktor Yanukovych, came to power.
But violent clashes in Kiev this week that left nearly 100 dead set in motion a series of dizzying changes in Ukraine that culminated Saturday in Parliament voting to oust Mr Yanukovych and free the steely former prime minister.
Hours later, the 53-year-old was driven out of the hospital and headed straight for Kiev and Independence Square, the epicentre of a three-month struggle by protesters desperate to end the rule of Mr Yanukovych, a man they accuse of trying to edge Ukraine away from the West and into the fold of Russia.
Accompanied by protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who held her hand as she was wheeled to the stage, she was besieged by photographers and journalists before finally making it onto the podium.
“You are heroes, you are Ukraine’s best,” she told the 50,000-strong crowd in a quivering voice that lacked the strength of her fiery speeches on this same square in 2004 to 2005, when the Orange Revolution uprising ended with a far less tragic outcome.
“I did not recognise Kiev, the burnt cars, the barricades, the flowers, but it’s another Ukraine, the Ukraine of free men,” she said, crying.
Some onlookers stood silently next to a wall built out of paving stones, full of flowers, crucifixes and flickering candles – one of the many shrines to protesters who were shot down just two days ago by riot police trying to oust them from the square.
Ms Tymoshenko’s much-anticipated appearance came after several memorial ceremonies conducted on stage for those the crowd repeatedly called “heroes”.
And while protesters on Saturday appeared to be getting their way with Mr Yanukovych’s regime close to collapse – and the President deserting Kiev altogether – the mood was not one for celebration.
“Do not leave Maidan (Independence Square) as long as you have not obtained what you wanted,” Ms Tymoshenko told the crowd.
Then suddenly one of the presenters who introduced her to the stage interrupted the skilled orator in full flow, asking for medics to help an onlooker who was taken ill in the packed crowd.
“Its a very emotional speech. That person was just overcome with emotion,” one man pointed out.
But confusion broke out when the presenter called out “titushki, titushki” in a loud voice, in reference to the widely-hated pro-Yanukovych thugs who spread terror during the three-month unrest that kicked off in November.
A large screen next to the stage, positioned directly above the portrait of a younger-looking Ms Tymoshenko, showed a man being escorted away, news cameras running to follow him.
When the drama finally ended, the opposition icon again took the microphone.
“Your fight for freedom will bring about democracy in other ex-Soviet republics,” she said to general applause, before another scuffle broke out in the crowd.
By then, Ms Tymoshenko had either finished or had enough. She was wheeled off stage.
“She’s brilliant,” said Oleksandr Chebotarev, 53, giving a thumbs-up at the end of her speech.
“But prison has tried her, she is not as bubbly.”