Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was arrested for “interfering with witness questioning” on August 5, 2011, during her trial for abuse of power. Tymoshenko may have been openly provoking the court, but the decision to place her under arrest still came as a surprise. Two months later, she was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. Even many of her opponents were stunned by the harsh sentence.
The day of her arrest was a turning point in the history of modern Ukrainian politics, which until then had managed to steer clear of head-on clashes and hopeless conflicts. The opposing sides tried to avoid passing the point of no return even when tensions were running very high during the crisis of 2004. The Tymoshenko case proved to be the proverbial Rubicon.
Now, a year later, we can begin to analyze what this case was all about and what official Kiev wanted to achieve. It is clear that Tymoshenko was prosecuted for political reasons. The former prime minister was President Viktor Yanukovych’s only remaining major opponent, even though most observers felt her political career was already past its prime by the start of the trial.
Neither the trial nor even the verdict sparked mass protests, confirming that Tymoshenko’s support base was relatively weak. Nevertheless, fears that Ukraine’s most famous woman could stage a comeback and the considerable personal enmity between her and Yanukovych eventually led to the trial. For some time most commentators were confident that Tymoshenko would receive a suspended sentence, barring her from running in the next parliamentary elections. But the government chose to go further and put the opposition leader out of commission for many years to come.
The second goal was more ambitious. Of the many charges her opponents could have leveled at her (her business and political careers were filled with dubious episodes), her opponents chose the most bizarre one, involving Russia. Apparently, Kiev hoped that the court’s decision would create a legal pretext for revising the gas supply contracts signed in 2009 by Tymoshenko and then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was for signing these contracts that Tymoshenko was charged with abusing her office, although the court failed to prove that she had personally gained from the deal.
Yanukovych tried to revise the contracts, which Kiev considers to be extremely disadvantageous, immediately after taking office in 2010. Initially it appeared he was making progress. In April Moscow and Kiev signed an agreement that lowered the price of gas in exchange for Ukraine’s consent to lease a Crimean base to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet until 2042. The contracts were not altered. Russia simply discounted the price listed in the agreements, but the price formula remained the same. Moscow was not going to reduce it any further unless Ukraine joined the Russian-backed integration alliances – from industrial to customs unions. It was at that point that the Tymoshenko case emerged.
A year has passed since then but the gas contracts appear to be set in stone. During this time, Kiev has tried to influence Moscow in many ways, from threats of renouncing Russian gas altogether and submitting the case for international arbitrage to attempts to persuade Russia to change the contracts and proposing greater cooperation across the board. But all was in vain. Russia continues to insist that the contracts are absolutely lawful. Kiev has not taken the matter to international court, probably because it doesn’t believe it can win. At one point Moscow stopped mentioning gas altogether, as if the issue didn’t exist. Ukraine is the only source of commentary and leaks on the subject.
In the meantime Russia has launched Nord Stream, which does not replace the Ukrainian gas network, but does cut into Kiev’s transit monopoly. Russia is also pressing forward with the Customs Union. It is waiting for the general situation in Ukraine to deteriorate to the point where Kiev won’t have any choice but to consider Russia’s integration proposals, primarily membership in the Customs Union.
In the meantime, Ukraine-EU relations – which Ukraine has used in the past to counterbalance ties with Russia – are in deep crisis over Tymoshenko. As prime minister, her lack of professionalism quickly lost Europe’s sympathies, but as a convict she has turned into a symbol of democracy, as would any jailed and mistreated opposition leader.
Yanukovych’s image in Europe has steadily deteriorated, and last spring German Chancellor Angela Merkel called him a dictator in the mold of Alexander Lukashenko. Hosting the European Football Championship was not the triumph Ukraine originally envisioned, because of the political debate over the Tymoshenko case and the decision of many European leaders to not to visit Kiev. The EU refused to sign an agreement on Ukraine’s associated membership, even though it was very beneficial for the Europeans.
Brussels and other European capitals do not understand why the Ukrainian authorities are so adamant. Far from moderating their position, they are threatening Tymoshenko with new trials over abuses at the national energy corporation (the hearings will start in August) and even over the murder of a member of parliament in the 1990s. Kiev wants to go all the way, probably in the hope that faced with this uncompromising stance the Europeans will let it go. However, for political reasons the EU cannot afford to do this.
Elections to Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in the fall of 2012 will be a decisive test for Ukraine. It is clear that Europe and the West in general will have a negative attitude toward them. Russia will not interfere, being confident that there will be no new revolution and that the victory of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, even if it is above board, will only further aggravate Ukraine’s relations with the EU. This will further narrow Kiev’s window of opportunity. If the opposition unexpectedly wins, Ukraine will face another period of instability, with the presidency and parliament divided between parties.
Ukraine is a large European state that has everything it needs to prosper and win respect. However, it has been marching in place for many years at the behest of its political elite. Ukrainian politicians believed that by virtue of its important geopolitical position it would always be at the center of the great powers’ struggle for influence and that the constant maneuvering would yield guaranteed dividends for Ukraine. But now all the big players are beset with their own problems and seem to be simply sick and tired of Ukraine.