With an ally claiming presidential powers and the whereabouts and legitimacy of the nominal president unclear, newly freed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko may feel her chance to take Ukraine’s leadership has come.
But even among protesters who detest President Viktor Yanukovych, Ms Tymoshenko sparks misgivings.
The former prime minister, who was convicted of abuse of office in a case widely seen as political revenge by her arch-foe Mr Yanukovych, is a polarising figure in a country staggering from political tensions that exploded into violence.
Admired and even adored by many for her flair and fiery rhetoric, Ms Tymoshenko is regarded by others as driven by intense ego and tainted with corruption.
Just a day after she left the hospital where she was imprisoned, demonstrators outside the Cabinet of Ministers expressed dismay that she could be Ukraine’s next president.
One of them held a placard depicting Ms Tymoshenko taking power from Mr Yanukovych and reading: “People didn’t die for this.”
Ukraine is in a state of uncertainty since Mr Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead last week in Kiev.
Mr Yanukovych’s whereabouts are unclear after he left the capital for his support base in eastern Ukraine. Allies are deserting him.
Presidential aide Hanna Herman said yesterday that Mr Yanukovych was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv as of Saturday night and plans to stay in power.
Russia’s next moves in the crisis were not immediately clear, but Washington warned Moscow not to intervene militarily.
The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled to work out who is in charge of the country and its ailing economy.
Fears spread that some regions might try to break away and seek support from neighbouring Russia, particularly the Crimean peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is based.
Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Mr Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the EU.
Mr Yanukovych set off a wave of protests by shelving an agreement with the EU in November, and the movement quickly expanded its grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for his resignation.
The parliament on yesterday assigned presidential powers to its new speaker, Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchinov, who said priorities include saving the economy and “returning to the path of European integration”.
The latter phrase is certain to displease Moscow, which wants Ukraine to be part of a customs union that would rival the EU and bolster Russia’s influence.
Russia granted Ukraine a £9 billion bailout after Mr Yanukovych backed away from the EU deal.
The Kiev protest camp at the centre of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators yesterday, setting up new tents.
Demonstrators posed with an armoured personnel carrier and two water cannon that protesters seized during last week’s clashes, and carried flowers in memory of the dead, some of whom were killed by snipers.
Ms Tymoshenko, the controversial heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, increasingly appears to have the upper hand in the political battle, winning the backing of a leading Russian politician and congratulations from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US senators on her release.
Although her spokeswoman, Maria Soroka, said it is too early to discuss whether she will run for president in early elections called for May 25, Ms Tymoshenko is possessed of adamant determination.
Even from a wheelchair because of a back problem that was aggravated in more than two years of imprisonment, she was a powerful speaker on Saturday to a crowd of tens of thousands at the protest camp.
“She knows how to do it. She is our hero,” said Ludmilla Petrova, one of those at the square the next day.
Other demonstrators objected.
“She is just as corrupt as Yanukovych,” said 28-year-old Boris Budinok. “We need new faces in Ukrainian politics. The old ones brought us to where we are now.”
Ms Tymoshenko’s admirers remember her as the most vivid figure of the Orange Rvolution, which forced a rerun of a fraud-riddled presidential election purportedly won by Mr Yanukovych.
After the new vote, won by Viktor Yushchenko, Ms Tymoshenko became prime minister.
But she and Mr Yushchenko quarrelled intensely and their government was a huge let down for those who had hoped it would help integrate Ukraine into Europe.
Detractors also look askance at her for her years at the helm of Unified Energy Systems, a company that was the main importer of the Russian natural gas on which Ukraine depends.
Nicknamed “The Gas Princess,” she was accused of giving kickbacks to then-premier Pavlo Lazarenko, who is now imprisoned in the US for fraud.
Later, as deputy prime minister, she pushed through reforms of the energy sector that some said did little more than fill the pockets of her associates.
Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, said yesterday that it would be a “grave mistake” for Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has been largely silent about whether it still supports Mr Yanukovych.
President Vladimir Putin, who presided over the close of the Sochi Olympics, has not spoken about recent events in Kiev.
He had developed a productive working relationship with Ms Tymoshenko when she was Ukraine’s prime minister.
The conviction that sent her to prison was for allegedly negotiating an excessively high price for Russian gas.
Russian politician Leonid Slutsky said yesterday that naming Ms Tymoshenko prime minister “would be useful for stabilising” tensions in Ukraine.
Tensions mounted in Crimea, where pro-Russian politicians are organising rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kiev.
Russia maintains a big naval base in Crimea that has tangled relations between the countries for two decades.