KIEV: Ukraine's race to succeed ousted Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych heated up Friday after his arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko joined a crowded field of contenders ready to tighten Kiev's embrace of the West.
The charismatic but hugely divisive Tymoshenko's decision to contest the May 25 poll encapsulates the spectacular scale of change that has swept over the culturally splintered nation since it was first hit by waves of deadly pro-Europe protests four months ago.
The 53-year-old -- her hair bleached and braided in a peasant style meant to appeal to her Ukrainian nationalist base -- was released from a disputed jail sentence within hours of parliament's decision to strip Yanukovych of power on February 22.
Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, has become for many a symbol of the cronyism and corruption that has stopped the ex-Soviet nation from enjoying the growth and living standards of other east European states that fell under Kremlin rule after World War II.
The deposed leader added fuel to the election-day fire by calling Friday for every region to hold its own sovereignty referendum following the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Russian-majority Crimean peninsula.
"Demand a (May 25) referendum on determining the status of every region in Ukraine," Yanukovych said in a statement quoted by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency.
The appeal threatens to reignite separatist passions that gripped the mostly Russian-speaking southeastern swaths of the nation of 46 million once Kiev's new leaders turned Ukraine on its Westward course.
But Yanukovych's impact on Ukrainian voters appears to have diminished beyond repair since his flight to Russia and he will play no part in the presidential vote itself.
His ruling Regions Party meanwhile has joined the pro-Western opposition and enters a Saturday caucus without a viable candidate to present at the polls.
Yanukovych in his statement asked to be removed from the party and relieved of his duties as honorary chairman -- a move the congress was expected to make anyway.
Things could hardly be more different for the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party that Tymoshenko founded, which is expected to formally back her candidacy at its own convention Saturday.
Tymoshenko said Friday that Yanukovych would one day answer for his call for regional referendums in court.
"If these really are his words, then this once again proves that the person who was once the president of Ukraine has effectively turned into a tool used for Ukraine's destruction," Tymoshenko told reporters.
Yet Tymoshenko has considerable ground to make up if she hopes to win the election. An opinion poll published by four respected Ukrainian research firms this week put her in third place with about eight percent of the prospective vote.
Chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko -- the only prominent Ukrainian tycoon to join protesters at the Kiev barricades -- ranked first with the backing of almost a quarter of the respondents.
Former heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko was second with almost nine percent.
Poroshenko and Klitschko are allies who vowed to work together after meeting Thursday in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Klitschko has never hidden his presidential ambitions but is yet to formally throw his hat into the race. His UDAR (Punch) party also meets Saturday.
Some analysts and Ukrainian media believe that the towering sports star may instead try to become the mayor of Kiev and give Poroshenko -- who could either run as an independent or representing his tiny Solidarity group -- a clearer shot at the presidency.
The pro-Russian camp for its part is made up of figures whose appeal is mostly constrained to specific regions and who -- unlike Tymoshenko and Klitschko -- have limited experience in dealing with foreign dignitaries.
Analysts view wealthy businessman and Regions Party member Sergiy Tigipko as the most prominent of a handful of contenders who stand for closer Kremlin ties.
Others include recent energy minister Yuriy Boiko and former eastern Kharkiv region governor Mykhailo Dobkin.