Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Princess Imprisoned

It is fitting that the crime of which Yulia Tymoshenko stands accused relates to gas. Gas made her rich in the 1990s, she was one of the oligarchs, known as the Gas Princess. It made her deputy prime minister for fuel and energy Viktor Yushchenko's cabinet back in the Kuchma years, from December 1999 to January 2001. When her reforms angered enough powerful enemies, she was pushed out of government and arrested. That was a decade ago. After the Orange Revolution, the peasant braids, two stints as prime minister, serial gas crises with Russia, a massive economic crisis, a close-run presidential election, vociferous denunciation of new President Viktor Yanukovych's swift and unconstitutional consolidation of power, and a political trial in which she has shown Ukraine's criminal justice system as much contempt as it has shown her, Tymoshenko sits in prison once more, accused of making an improper deal with Russia to restore the flow of gas in 2009.

The international condemnations flow into Kyiv, as her supporters chant, "Shame, Shame!" The world heavyweight boxing champion - Vitali Klitschko, also a member of the Kyiv City Council and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform Party - declares his readiness to stand bail for the damsel in distress.

Tymoshenko's hands are not totally clean, no one's are in Ukrainian politics. She made her money in the wild 90s; in her early political career she was allied to Pavlo Lazarenko, a corrupt prime minister who currently sits in a California prison. She governed a country with weak institutions in transition in the middle of an economic crisis, could not work with the president, and dominated the Cabinet. As a leader, she gets things done, but she has a domineering personality and a bit of a cult of personality, before the election some in Europe feared her autocratic tendencies as much as Yanukovych's.

But it was Yanukovych who won the election and since, he and his allies have played fast and loose with the constitution, cracked down on the free press by pressuring journalists, and overseen a decline in the fairness of elections since the presidential one in January and February 2010, which was basically free and fair. Their prosecution of Tymoshenko is selective and part of a pattern, clearly a bid to disqualify the most powerful opposition leader from future political office. Tymoshenko would be a real threat if the next presidential election was as fair as the 2010 election. While she has plenty of detractors with valid complaints, she would have likely won the presidency if an economic crisis started in the United States had not badly wounded fragile Ukraine under her watch. Her political response to the crisis in 2008 and 2009, which I studied extensively in graduate school, including by visiting Ukraine and conducting interviews with policymakers and experts, was not bad. And Yanukovych's heavy-handed approach to governance has disenchanted many of the people who were not part of his political base but voted for him in the run-off.

The Tymoshenko trial puts Ukraine in a very bad light abroad. The foreign reaction has been strong, and not only from her allies in the West and Western governments. Russia too is upset with Yanukovych over the trial. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt gets it right in a recent op-ed penned upon her recent detention in August. Yanukovych is serious about pressing forward to European integration, but he seems to think he can get away with murder (figuratively) at home and still move integration forward. The EU should continue its negotiations on an Association Agreement with a deep free trade area, but its leaders will and must push Yanukovych on his domestic abuses of power. And Yanukovych should worry about Tymoshenko. He risks turning her from an opposition leader with a strong following to a more sympathetic political prisoner who one assumes will eventually be freed and able to return to politics. And I doubt a freed-from-prison President Yulia Tymoshenko would have the forgiveness of a Nelson Mandela.

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