But the appearance of Ms. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, was curiously subdued, and not just because she was in a wheelchair.
While the thousands gathered there welcomed her, the cheers were tentative, sending a message of appreciation for her suffering but also skepticism.
“I, as a politician, repent,” she said, quickly sensing the mood.
“Up until today, politicians were unworthy of you.”
As Russia cemented its hold on the Crimean Peninsula on Tuesday in a pomp-filled ceremony in Moscow, Ms. Tymoshenko emerged as a pivotal, if not beloved, figure in a nation that finds itself directly astride the East-West divide, forced to accommodate its muscular neighbor even as much of its population clamors for closer ties to the West.
Ms. Tymoshenko, 53, who is on her way back to Kiev after treatment for her back in Germany, is uniquely suited to both roles.
She is a symbol of Ukraine’s blighted, corrupt, oligarchic past and its possible future.
She is both heroine and villain, an architect of Ukraine’s rotten politics and its victim, too, having spent two and a half years in prison on what are widely considered politically motivated charges of corruption brought by her nemesis, the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.
While she may be tainted by her past brushes with power, she is expected to run for president, analysts say, though most doubt she can win.
But that may not matter.
Considered an excellent politician, realistic and intelligent, she already exercises enormous behind-the-scenes influence in the fledgling Kiev government and seems sure to remain a force in Ukraine’s politics for the foreseeable future.
Shrewd, with a ruthless streak — the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, once called her “the only man in Ukrainian politics” — she, perhaps more than anyone else, will determine whether Ukraine can be cleansed of corruption and transformed into the Western-style state that the protesters of the Maidan, or Independence Square, have said all along was their ultimate goal.
But it will be difficult to repair her image in a country that deeply distrusts its old guard.
A presidential preference poll by one of Ukraine’s leading research institutions, SOCIS, put her third, at 9.7 percent, well behind Petro Poroshenko, 48, an oligarch known as the chocolate king, who is pro-European but politically independent, with 21.7 percent.
Vitali V. Klitschko, the former boxer, 42, came second with 14.6 percent.
The poll’s margin of error is 2.2 percentage points.
Vladimir Fedorin, former editor of the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, said that the Maidan protests were a “political awakening” for Ukrainians and that Ms. Tymoshenko’s blend of populism and patronage politics would no longer suffice to win an election.
“It would be only fair for Tymoshenko to step off the political stage together with Yanukovych,” he said.
The effective leader of the Fatherland Party, the traditional rival to Mr. Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, she was the former president’s fiercest opponent, and yet she is considered to have been cut from the same cloth.
Both thrived on a system of commercial and political intimacy and corruption, deeply dependent on deals with Ukraine’s largest businessmen, the oligarchs, and on complicated relations with Moscow.
The two systems had become symbiotic: powerful leaders dominating compliant Parliaments and enriching themselves through oligarchs, who themselves manipulated the interconnections between Russia and Ukraine.
“Tymoshenko is ready to bend morals and values just as much as Yanukovych,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukrainian analyst at Chatham House, a foreign policy research institute in London.
“It’s why people said he had no right to judge her, because they come from the same gang.”
Mykhailo Minakov, who teaches at the University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, said that the short history of independent Ukraine is the competition between the presidency and Parliament.
“Parliament has a mix of democracy and oligarchy, and the presidency, a mix of dictatorship and oligarchy,” he said.
“We need to be rid of that, and if Tymoshenko wins, we will not.”
But she remains extremely powerful and is expected to play an important role.
Not only are acting President Oleksandr V. Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk leading members of her Fatherland Party, but so is the powerful interior minister, Arsen Avakov, an oligarch from Kharkiv.
And so is the new chief of the National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, who was a commander on the Maidan and a member of Parliament.
Yuriy V. Lutsenko, a prominent opposition strategist who was Ms. Tymoshenko’s interior minister, described his vain efforts to get the new acting government to appoint powerful oligarchs with strong local ties as governors in the largely Russian-speaking east.
For more than 24 hours, he said, Mr. Turchynov and Mr. Yatsenyuk mulled appointing party loyalists instead.
Then he went to Ms. Tymoshenko.
“It took her 15 minutes to understand, and she accepted it,” Mr. Lutsenko said.
Ihor Kolomoisky, a banker who owns a soccer team, was appointed to run Dnepropetrovsk, where Ms. Tymoshenko was born.
Serhiy Taruta, an oligarch rich on metals, runs Donetsk.
The naming of the oligarchs was a strong message to Moscow, but for many here, the symbolism was poor, foretelling politics as usual.
“We should judge by the appointments,” Mr. Minakov said.
“A party that was rather an outcast on Maidan has a lot of power now,” leading to deep dissatisfaction so far among those who favor a more European, democratic society.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin views Ms. Tymoshenko as a Ukrainian patriot, but someone with whom he can do business.
“She would never pretend she was anything but a coldblooded person with a thirst for power and money, and it’s easier to deal with such people,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“It’s comfortable for us to work with Tymoshenko’s government,” Mr. Putin said in 2009.
She was his favored candidate in 2010, while Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russian president, favored Mr. Yanukovych.
But it is indicative that Moscow found reason to be content with either candidate.
“This revolution may have done away with a regime, but not with a system,” Mr. Trenin said.
“The leaders and Parliament are all the old faces, from the old system, and Tymoshenko was one of them.”
For that reason, he suggested, Ms. Tymoshenko is more likely to play a background role.
That view was echoed by Steffen Halling of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, who said that she might choose not to run for the presidency until Ukraine stabilizes.
The position is now weaker, he said, and “it could be a big risk for her to run and fail.”
Ms. Tymoshenko grew up Russian-speaking and poor; her father left home when she was 1, her mother was a taxi dispatcher, and she took her mother’s maiden name.
She studied economics and engineering, married young and started a video rental business with her husband.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, she turned to the energy business and made a fortune, founding United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a middleman for Russian imports of natural gas.
She became known as the gas princess, and one of her associates, Pavlo Lazarenko, a former prime minister, ended up in an American jail on charges including fraud and money laundering.
She proved adept and adaptable, switching from the Russian language to Ukrainian, which she learned as an adult, and from brunette to blonde, with her distinctive, peasant-style braid.
A fiery speaker, in 2004 she led half a million people in the streets during the Orange Revolution, warming the crowd, flirting with it, energizing it and winning, only to be double-crossed, as her supporters see it, by Viktor Yushchenko, the man she helped install as president.
His allies accused her, as prime minister then, of undermining him, and he fired her in September 2005.
She was reappointed in 2007, and became controversial again for signing a 2009 deal with Russia that ended a shut-off of gas over unpaid debts but did so at a high price.
She narrowly lost the presidential race in 2010 to Mr. Yanukovych by 3.4 percent of the vote, and the next year his courts sent her to prison.
During her trial, she refused to stand for the judge, sitting and fixing him with an icy stare while he called a parade of Mr. Yanukovych’s political allies to testify against her.
To stand before him, she said, would mean “kneeling” before the government.
Mr. Lutsenko does not count her out.
“All politicians are actors, but Tymoshenko is a better actor than all the others,” he said.
“She plays to the hall, and not to the sponsors on the balcony. And she knows the secret trap doors on the stage.”
Source: The New York Times