Argument

The End of Ukraine’s Golden Girl?

After a bizarre show trial, Yulia Tymoshenko is going to jail. But it may be her country that suffers.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine – On Tuesday, Oct. 11, the final curtain fell on the politically charged drama that has up to now been the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko. The former Ukrainian prime minister received a seven-year prison sentence. But is this really the last we’ll hear of the golden-plaited, onetime darling of the Orange Revolution?

On its last day, the trial that has transfixed Ukrainians and international observers for more than three months began as always: amid chaos.

A police paddy wagon transported Tymoshenko, the leader of Ukraine’s political opposition, from a jail cell to the courthouse in central Kiev. There, riot police held back the throngs of her supporters, who heaved like an ocean swell, trying vainly to break through the cordon. Meanwhile, only meters away — and separated by another line of helmeted police — a smaller rent-a-crowd of her opponents blasted music and anti-Tymoshenko speeches from Lollapalooza-sized speakers in an attempt to drown out the equally ear-splitting levels of noise coming from her supporters.

Inside the courtroom the political drama switched into high gear. Judge Rodion Kireyev, a 31-year-old, heavy-set, Harry Potter look-alike, read a summary of the case for close to four hours. When the verdict finally came, much of it was inaudible, as Tymoshenko launched into a soliloquy that drowned out the soft-spoken Kireyev. "Glory to Ukraine!" she said. "This verdict will not stop me."

But it was Kireyev who had the last word in the end. Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison, with an additional fine of some $190 million. She was also barred from holding government posts for three years after her prison term.

Tymoshenko’s trial began on June 24. She was charged under a Soviet-era statute of abuse of office, a criminal offense in Ukraine with a prison term of up to 10 years. The accusations stemmed from an agreement that she brokered with Russia in January 2009, during the two countries’ so-called "gas war," which had resulted in the Kremlin’s cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine and large parts of Europe. At the time, she was prime minister and engaged in a vicious power struggle with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko.

Tymoshenko outmaneuvered Yushchenko and dramatically flew to Russia to hammer out a deal with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. She returned to Kiev, she thought, a hero — and well-placed to win the country’s presidential election in the beginning of 2010.

Voters, however, had grown tired of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko’s ceaseless bickering. Many viewed her — a mini-oligarch in her own right after running a gas company in the 1990s — as just another corrupt politician. She lost in a runoff to Viktor Yanukovych, the very man whom she and Yushchenko had vanquished in the Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych moved quickly to secure his grip on power. Tymoshenko was quickly replaced as prime minister through a series of deft parliamentary machinations. (Yanukovych at first could not remove her because, when elected, he did not have a legislative majority. He resolved this by simply changing the Ukrainian Constitution to suit his needs.) Soon after, members of her inner circle found themselves under investigation, charged — or in jail. Yuriy Lutsenko, her interior minister, was arrested as he was walking his dog one Sunday. His trial on charges of misusing state funds is ongoing.

Tymoshenko had three criminal cases opened against her, but the one the government chose to try her first for was over the gas deal. Prosecutors maintained that she signed the deal without the approval of the rest of the government. Moreover, the price that she agreed Ukraine would pay for Russian gas was inflated, they said, and cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

Once the trial started, Tymoshenko, whose ratings had been dropping, found herself in her element, cast once again as the plucky, persecuted truth-speaker to power. Tymoshenko on a good day is easily Ukraine’s most charismatic leader. (On a bad day she has post-Soviet politicians’ unfortunate habit of droning on interminably and discursively.) A striking 50-year-old, she effortlessly switches between the roles of she-tiger and populist, and sometimes girlish coquette.

Inside the courtroom, she harangued witnesses, speechified, and made life in general miserable for Judge Kireyev, whom she refused to stand for, saying that he was just a government stooge. (At one point, she tweeted from the courtroom that Kireyev was a "bedbug.") On Aug. 5, after she ridiculed the current prime minister, Mykola Azarov, during his testimony, Kireyev jailed Tymoshenko for contempt of court for the remainder of the trial.

As the case dragged on, criticism from the outside began to mount. Western governments issued statements that they were "concerned" that the trials against Tymoshenko and her allies "could be" politically motivated. Privately, they were even more certain. The case against Tymoshenko was flimsy, they told journalists, for what amounted to an administrative offense. Even if she overstepped her authority, she ultimately had received the worst political punishment by being voted out of office.

In the end, the disapproval became more pointed. At an international conference in September in the Ukrainian seaside resort of Yalta, European officials threw the linguistic kid gloves aside and told Yanukovych bluntly that they expected Tymoshenko to be set free. If she wasn’t, relations between the European Union and Ukraine "will hardly be the same," said Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for expansion.

To the east, Russia also weighed in. Yanukovych’s government is trying to renegotiate the gas deal Tymoshenko signed. The trial, the Kremlin said, was a full frontal attack on the agreement. Yanukovych, it should be noted, has bucked initial predictions that he would return Ukraine to the Russian fold. In recent weeks, the two fraternal Slavic nations seem to be drawing further apart, due in part to the bad blood over the gas agreement.

So the Yanukovych government officials found themselves in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t dilemma. What to do with a problem like Yulia Tymoshenko?

If she were found guilty, Kiev risked inviting the wrath of the international community. What’s more, European officials said that two agreements that Ukraine is negotiating with the European Union on free trade and a closer political association could be jeopardized. Although the deals will probably be signed, they still need to be ratified by all 27 member states’ parliaments — no sure thing in this political environment. This would be highly difficult after a Tymoshenko conviction, EU officials said.

On the other hand, releasing Tymoshenko was not an enticing option either. Once liberated, she would undoubtedly resume her attacks on the Ukrainian leadership with doubled intensity. And Yanukovych and his Party of Regions would face a galvanized opponent in parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2012. A compromise solution was floated of giving Tymoshenko just a suspended sentence. But even this was not a way out: The Europeans would not be satisfied because she still could not run for office.

In the end, Ukrainian officials went with the hard option. Why, however, is anyone’s guess. Is it because Yanukovych has given up on Europe? Or just the opposite: He believes that Brussels will eventually cave and accept Ukraine, warts and all, rather than push the country into the arms of the Russians? Or perhaps the verdict was just a move in a drawn-out game of chess between old political enemies? Despite the verdict, Tymoshenko’s lawyers have said that they will file an appeal next week — even while the other two criminal cases are pending against her.

Whatever the reason for the verdict, international reaction nevertheless was swift and resolute. Yanukovych had crossed a line. The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that the sentence would have "profound implications." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the decision was a "step back for Ukraine" and "would have consequences."

Russia’s Foreign Ministry for its part issued a statement saying Tymoshenko’s conviction carried an "obvious anti-Russian subtext." And Putin later chimed in, saying that he was "perplexed" at the decision, which he found "unfair." (The parallels to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case have not been lost on a number of observers, however.)

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s fractious and anemic opposition appears to finally have a cause to rally around. They plan to hold a major demonstration in front of the country’s legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, on Friday. Yushchenko has avowed that the case "is not political." He even testified at her trial — though his car was pelted with eggs as he left. As to whether this signals the end or the rebirth of the Orange Revolution movement, so far large crowds have failed to materialize.

On the sidewalk in front of Kiev’s Pechersk district courthouse, the pro-Tymoshenko tent city still stands; the hundred or so people there, many from her political base in the country’s west, say that they will remain until Tymoshenko is released. One wonders whether they are prepared to live there for seven years.

 


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