On August 5, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and heroine of Ukraine’s 2004 pro-western Orange Revolution, was arrested during her trial. Tymoshenko was in court defending herself against charges of overstepping her authority and allegedly making an illegal gas price deal with Russia in 2009. The presiding judge, Rodion Kireyev, accused her of systematically disrupting the trial’s proceedings and had her incarcerated for contempt of court for an unspecified period of time.
Tymoshenko has strongly protested the charges brought against her. She holds that the trial is a politically motivated farce designed to destroy her as a rival to Victor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s current president, in the next presidential elections. Many in Ukraine and overseas agree with this, including Senator Richard Lugar (R–IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said:
The arrest of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko further contributes to the perception that this case has been pursued to settle old political scores. I am concerned that the proceedings are distracting the nation of Ukraine from the difficult work ahead in its efforts to join the European Union. It is time for all Ukrainians to leave past political disagreements behind them and work together to build their future in Europe.
It appears Yanukovich has stepped on a political land mine. By instigating what increasingly appears to be a political show trial, he angered half of the population, including many in the electoral battleground regions of Central Ukraine. Yanukovich opened a Pandora’s box of a political zero-sum game, in which the winner puts the loser in jail—sending Ukraine back to the Soviet past, and disappointing many among the country’s elites.
On Monday, the judge turned down three defense appeals for Tymoshenko’s release. Tymoshenko has long believed that she will be found guilty, which could lead to a 10-year prison sentence. Even if the judge finds her guilty but suspends her prison sentence, she will be unable to run for office in the foreseeable future. However, given the negative reactions to the arrest, Yanukovich may have to consider whether the political price of leaning on the court for a conviction would be too high. Yanukovich nurses a deep sense of personal grievance against Tymoshenko, but this is a game he cannot win.
The United States and the EU have condemned the trial as an act of selective justice, while Russia has said that the 2009 gas deal did not break international law.
Meanwhile, the EU is conducting negotiations with Ukraine about its associate membership. Brussels has been toughening up its demands and has failed to offer Ukraine a clear path to membership—something that would have made this arrest all but impossible. With its Eastern Partnership flagging, the EU should make Timoshenko’s release a sine qua non for Ukraine’s achieving associate membership.
However, it is Moscow that benefits from the Yanukovich–Tymoshenko fight the most: The row is splitting Ukrainian society and polarizing the political elites. This instability keeps Ukraine dependent on its giant neighbor, Russia, and prevents it from making progress in improving its economy and moving toward the West.
Anton Altman is a research volunteer at The Heritage Foundation.