Yanukovych and Tymoshenko: Pulling the Bandage Off Slowly…Very, Very Slowly

On October 11, a court in Kyiv found former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko guilty of abuse of office for the natural gas contract she signed in January 2009 with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. That agreement ended a dispute that severed the flow of Russian gas to Ukraine and Central Europe. The court sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in prison. International reaction followed swiftly, dismissing the trial and verdict as a politicized sham.

The European Union stated that the trial “did not respect the international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process.” Many European foreign ministries separately blasted the verdict. For example, the Polish foreign ministry noted that “the manner in which the trial is conducted and today’s conviction are the example of politicization of the Ukrainian judiciary,” while Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said “we do not see that European laws, standards and values are respected in this case. We do not see any grounds for this sentence.” (Poland and Sweden are two of the more Ukraine-friendly members of the European Union.)

The White House said “the United States is deeply disappointed with the conviction and sentencing” which along with the prosecution of other opposition figures raise “serious concerns about the Government of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy and rule of law.” And Russia joined in. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the case “highly politicized,” while Putin professed to be “puzzled” by the verdict.

Kyiv thus scored quite a hat trick—it is not often that one manages to evoke such criticism from virtually all the Europeans plus the Americans and the Russians.

And consequences are likely to follow. EU Foreign Policy Representative Catherine Ashton warned that “the way the Ukrainian authorities will generally respect universal values and rule of law, and specifically how they will handle these cases, risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship, including for the conclusion of the Association Agreement, our political dialogue and our cooperation more broadly.” Other Europeans threatened to halt negotiation of the Association Agreement and cancel Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych’s planned October 20 visit to Brussels. An EU-Ukraine summit, scheduled for December, may be in danger as well.

Speaking at an October 12 Brookings event, opposition leader (and three-time world heavyweight boxing champion) Vitaliy Klychko noted the contradiction between Yanukovych’s professed support for European values and the democratic backsliding taking place under his presidency. He added that there were several “exit” paths from the Tymoshenko dilemma. One might be “decriminalization”—the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) could amend the criminal code and remove the statute that provided the grounds for the charge against her.

Indeed, a number of Ukrainians suggested that possibility in mid-September, when Yanukovych’s response to a question about Tymoshenko left open the door to amending the criminal code. However, the Rada—in which Yanukovych’s Party of Regions holds a firm majority—has not yet acted on the provision in question.

Tymoshenko is by no means the only reason for Western concern about democratic back-sliding in Ukraine. Other opposition politicians, such as Yuri Lutsenko, also languish in prison. Pressure continues on the media. Plans to submit a new election law have raised worries that opposition parties could be unfairly disadvantaged. But Tymoshenko tops the list of concerns.

How far will this go? Speaking on October 12, Yanukovych said the verdict was “not the final decision.” Many knowledgeable observers believe that Yanukovych understands that, as much as he might like to see Tymoshenko in prison, that would badly damage Ukraine’s foreign policy interests by producing a freeze in Kyiv’s relations with the European Union. So drawing closer to Europe requires settling the Tymoshenko case.

One can jerk a bandage off quickly or pull it off slowly and more painfully. In the case of Tymoshenko, Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government appear to be pulling the bandage off as slowly as possible…and then reapplying it, so that they can pull it off again. In the end, if Yanukovych truly wishes to bring Ukraine closer to Europe, he will have to find a way to release Tymoshenko and allow her to reenter political life. The questions then become: when will he act and, in the meantime, how much damage will be done to Kyiv’s image, how many summit meetings will be cancelled, and how many sanctions against Ukraine or Ukrainian officials will be proposed in Western legislative bodies?