Yulia Tymoshenko trial is an own goal for Ukraine

The venue was Kiev’s glittering Hyatt Regency hotel, overlooking the Old City. The moment was just before Ukraine‘s 2010 presidential election. Voters had grown weary of the constant bickering between the country’s two pro-western leaders – firebrand prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and semi-romantic nationalist president Viktor Yushchenko.

Instead, the man of the moment was Viktor Yanukovych, a Soviet-era apparatchik. Back in 2004, Yanukovych had been caught, embarrassingly, trying to fix the last presidential poll.

Over an agreeable dinner, aides to Yanukovych – without recognising any previous wrongdoing – told me that their candidate was now a reformed character. Yanukovych was a democrat. More than that he was also a passionate European, who believed that Ukraine’s geopolitical destiny lay with the European Union, rather than with Russia, the country’s authoritarian neighbour (although good ties with Moscow were important, too). The new Yanukovych was even learning English. This message was repeated in Brussels, London and Washington.

Eighteen months later things look rather different. The decision by a Kiev court today to jail Tymoshenko for seven years for abuse of office over a controversial 2009 gas deal with Russia is an unambiguous signal. It says that Yanukovych does not really care what the EU thinks about him. It also confirms what Yanukovych’s critics have been saying for some time – that under his leadership the country is sliding towards Russian-style “managed democracy” and autocratic rule.

Since taking power, Yanukovych has rapidly reversed the fragile democratic gains of the Orange Revolution. He has put a squeeze on the country’s independent media, with TV now in the hands of a bunch of pro-regime oligarchs. Nosy opposition journalists – such as the investigative reporter Vasyl Klymentyev – have disappeared. In parliament, Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions has, using dubious means, achieved a majority. And politically motivated prosecutions have been brought against Tymoshenko and other senior members of her bloc.

Initially, some welcomed Yanukovych’s old-school centralising tendencies. They favourably contrast Ukraine’s current political “stability” with the chaotic, and even dysfunctional, Orange revolution years of 2004-2010. Speaking after her prison sentence, Tymoshenko delved into history and said the judge’s verdict had plunged Ukraine back to 1937 and the dark era of Stalin’s showtrials.

“As for me, be sure that I will not stop my fight even for a minute. I will always be with you as long as it is necessary,” she declared defiantly, as she was carted back to jail.

The comparison is ridiculous: in 1937 defendants were taken out after their trials and immediately shot. This won’t happen to Tymoshenko.

There are rumours that following her conviction Yanukovych, having proved his point, will look for some kind of deal. One version is that the charges against her will be “decriminalised”; another that she will be released on payment of a large fine. The European Union has reacted to the sentence with anger and dismay. Amnesty International dubbed it “politically motivated”. The Russian press baron Alexander Lebedev mischievously tweeted: “Free Nelson Tymoshenko!”

But what is clear is that the case was designed to nobble Tymoshenko and to cripple the pro-western, anti-Yanukovych forces she represents.

She is now unable to participate in Ukraine’s next two elections: parliamentary ones in 2012, and the next presidential election in 2015. That, presumably, was the idea. Thousands of her supporters took to the streets of Kiev today, protesting noisily against Yanukovych’s heavy-handed tactics, reminiscent of Ukraine’s backroom politics a decade ago.

The trial bears comparison with that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who fell out with Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky was jailed for a second time in 2010 after a similarly ludicrous judicial process. Khodorkovsky’s trial was seen as a bellwether for Russia’s political direction: forwards towards partial liberalisation and the rule of law, or backwards along the same lugubrious KGB track as before. Tymoshenko’s conviction, alas, shows that Yanukovych isn’t the newly minted democrat of 2010, but the same man whose election team in 2004 hacked into Ukraine’s central election commission’s computer.

Things may look grim for Tymoshenko, but there are several factors in her favour. As Andrew Wilson, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues Ukraine isn’t Russia. There are signal differences: Ukraine’s economy isn’t booming, its political system is fractured, and it still has a credible (admittedly now jailed) opposition leader – Tymoshenko. Relations with the Kremlin are cool.

Plus, Ukraine is more susceptible than Russia to international pressure.

But the clinching factor is something completely different: football.

Next year, Ukraine, together with Poland, will host the European football championships, Uefa Euro 2012, with the final taking place in Kiev. It is a moment when the eyes of the world, or much of it, will be looking at Ukraine.

And it won’t look too good if Nelson Tymoshenko is still in jail.

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