Today, a regional court in Kyiv has found Yuliya Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister and leading opposition figure, guilty of “abuse of office” stemming from her role in the 2009 Ukraine–Russia gas deal.
The sentence includes a seven-year prison term with an additional three-year prohibition to hold political office, as well as the stipulation that she must pay $190 million in compensation to Ukraine’s gas monopoly Naftogaz. Tymoshenko herself, her supporters, and even her critics—as well as European leaders and legal experts—view the prosecution and the sentence as a political vendetta.
This decision has spawned public outcry and protests by Tymoshenko supporters. Nearly 800 of the former prime minister’s supporters have set up tents in front of the court protesting the verdict while facing pro-government demonstrators and over 1,100 policemen. Opposition leaders, however, claim that there are plans to disperse the protesters forcefully.
Tymoshenko herself decried the decision as evidence of blatant corruption of the judicial system. “It is not Judge [Rodion] Kireyev but President [Victor] Yanukovych who is handing down the verdict,” she said. Tymoshenko promised to appeal the verdict both in Ukrainian courts and the European Court of Human Rights.
The controversial and heavy-handed handling of the Tymoshenko case has found no support in the international community, either. European politicians attempted to reach out to the Ukrainian president even before the verdict was meted out, but the effort was in vain.
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director of Amnesty International, called the charges against Tymoshenko “attempts to criminalize decisions that she made in the course of her work.” This is likely to open the door for declaring Tymoshenko a political prisoner. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero lamented “the degradation of the rule of law in Ukraine.”
The trial has damaged not only Ukraine’s reputation as a democratic country but also bilateral and multilateral relations with its neighbors. The verdict effectively removes Tymoshenko as a candidate for the upcoming 2013 presidential elections. This has placed EU–Ukraine relations in jeopardy, particularly the negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
As the Member of the European Parliament Jacek Emil Saryusz-Wolski of Poland commented, “In the European Parliament, I don’t see the slightest chance of any ratification of any document between the European Union and Ukraine in the present circumstances…. I think that today Ukraine does not deserve mention of membership perspective.” This is unfortunate, as close integration is in both Europe’s and Ukraine’s interests.
Only Moscow wins from the chill in Europe–Ukraine relations, as it is readying to push Kyiv into the membership in the Russian-dominated Customs Union. Additionally, Russian officials expressed concern that the verdict may be used as a pretext to renegotiate (or violate) “still valid, legally binding agreements between [Russian-owned gas company] Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukraine.”
Yanukovich called the verdict “regrettable” and acknowledged the international implications. He expressed hope that the upcoming changes in the Ukrainian criminal code may soften Tymoshenko’s punishment. The Parliament, however, dominated by Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, voted last week against the amendments that would decriminalize her offense, casting doubt on the president’s suggestions of clemency.
Even if the appeal succeeds, however, the damage to Ukraine’s reputation has already been done. Ukrainian officials chose to go through with the trial despite the questionable nature of the offenses and the evidence presented in court and warnings of serious diplomatic repercussions from international experts even before the case went to court. The lost faith in their commitment to democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and abroad will be difficult to restore.
The Tymoshenko affair may alienate Ukraine from Europe and push it closer to Russia. Mykola Tomenko, currently the leader of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, as her political party is known, said that they will appeal for international sanctions on Ukrainian officials involved in the case.
Neither Europe nor the United States needs a second repressive regime, like Belarus, in Eastern Europe. U.S. officials should condemn the recent developments, and engage the government of Ukraine in a way that would encourage a return to democratic consolidation rather than promote alienation and further backsliding away from democracy.