KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko declared Saturday “the dictatorship has fallen” as she walked free under a resolution passed by parliament that reversed her 2011 conviction, as a dramatic political crisis gripped the country.
“The dictatorship has fallen,” Tymoshenko said in a statement released on her official website. “It fell thanks to those people who came out to defend themselves, their families and their country.”
Asked by crowds gathered at the hospital where she was released about her further plans, Tymoshenko said, “I will run for president,” news agencies reported.
She said she will “make it so that no drop of blood that was spilled will be forgotten.”
Tymoshenko is the arch-rival of beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the Ukrainian capital of Kiev Saturday after weeks of violent protests.
A spokeswoman for the imprisoned former prime minister, Natasha Lysova, told The Associated Press earlier Saturday that Tymoshenko had been released from the prison where she is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office, but later said that she meant only that a decision taken by parliament meant she must be freed immediately.
Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections. Yanukovych described the events as a coup, comparing them to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and insisted he would not step down.
After a tumultuous week that left scores dead and Ukraine’s political destiny in flux, fears mounted that the country could split in two — a Europe-leaning west and a Russian-leaning east and south.
The president said he would not recognize any of the lawmakers’ decisions as valid. Parliament called for early presidential elections to be held on May 25.
Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, where lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of the newly empowered legislature and called for volunteer militias to uphold order.
“They are trying to scare me. I have no intention to leave the country. I am not going to resign, I’m the legitimately elected president,” Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and with long pauses in his speaking.
“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’etat,” he said. “I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed.”
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, has huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Yanukovych’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities. Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favors closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president. The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favor of a deal with Moscow.