The conviction of the opposition leader has chilled Ukraine’s relations with the West. Might it create an opening for Russia?
SEVEN years ago Yulia Tymoshenko, a populist politician dressed in orange, climbed onto a stage in a snow-covered Kiev and galvanised 150,000 protesters against the rigged victory of Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 presidential election. She sustained the energy of the crowd for days and ushered Viktor Yushchenko to victory, pledging retribution for those who stood in his way. “Glory to Ukraine”, she hailed; the crowd shouted “Yulia”.
Close to the orange revolution’s seventh anniversary, she made headlines again. This time the former prime minister, wearing grey, sat in court to hear a nervous judge reading out a sentence of seven years’ jail, a three-year ban on public office and a fine of $190m as purported compensation for damage allegedly caused when she struck a gas deal with Russia in 2009. The term was symbolic: a year in jail for every one that has passed since the orange revolution.
Ever since Ms Tymoshenko was detained in jail on August 5th, the outcome has been predictable. It would have been out of character for Mr Yanukovych, now Ukraine’s thuggishly vindictive president, to let his bitter rival, who has often humiliated and poked him with his own criminal past, to go free. It would be against Ms Tymoshenko’s nature not to turn her show trial into political theatre. Even before the judge had finished reading the sentence, she turned to the cameras: “This is an authoritarian regime…I will not stop my struggle”. As she was led out of court she called on her supporters to overthrow the regime, again chanting “glory to Ukraine”.
Outside, a few thousand supporters were pushed around by riot police, but this was a poor echo of the crowd seven years ago. Most Ukrainians see the trial as political, but they are too disillusioned to
trust opposition leaders. In the past few months Ms Tymoshenko’s modest popularity rating has barely budged even as Mr Yanukovych’s has slid downwards.
The significance of the verdict goes far beyond Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovych. It will determine the country’s future direction. By locking up Ms Tymoshenko, Mr Yanukovych has crossed a line separating the chaotic and corrupt but pluralist country that Ukraine was from the Putin-style kleptocracy it is becoming. Since being elected president in February 2010, Mr Yanukovych has moved in two directions, consolidating his personal power but also pursuing economic integration with the European Union. His democratic failings were offset in the eyes of some Western leaders by a contrast with the infuriatingly ineffective Mr Yushchenko. After 18 months of Mr Yanukovych, Ukraine looks more like Russia; but it is closer to a trade and association agreement with the EU.
Ms Tymoshenko’s imprisonment now jeopardises years of clumsy but steady progress towards Europe. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, made an uncharacteristically firm statement that Ms Tymoshenko’s case would have “profound implications for EU-Ukraine bilateral relations, including for the conclusion of the association agreement.” Mr Yanukovych may have hoped that Ukraine was too important and the risk of pushing it into a Russian embrace too great for Europe to react strongly. What he failed to understand is that it is not sympathy for Ms Tymoshenko that triggered such a response, but his abuse of a core European value, the rule of law.