“Having a prison stint on one's CV is a precondition for being a serious politician in Ukraine,” a friend of mine quipped after hearing about the seven-year prison term handed down to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Bearing in mind that Ukraine’s current president Viktor Yanukovych has served two sentences, there may be something to this sad joke.
But seriously, this is Yanukovych’s biggest political mistake to date. Firstly, he has demonstrated that he is either foolishly vindictive (an especially dangerous trait in a politician) or a downright coward, or a combination of the two, which is disaster for him and his Party of Regions.
Secondly, the president moved Tymoshenko’s political sell-by date out to the distant future. This unprincipled, ruthless populist, who lives for power alone, is now a martyr in the eyes of many. Forgotten are her shady dealings with Russian gas moguls in the 1990s or her treacherous subversion of a former ally – ex-president Viktor Yushchenko. Yulia Vladimirovna has become overnight one of the most famous political prisoners in the world. Rest assured, Tymoshenko with her charisma, mass appeal and still sizeable resources will exploit this new status to the fullest extent possible.
Thirdly, Mr Yanukovych performed the unlikely feat of making Moscow, Washington and Brussels speak with one voice – a very rare thing indeed. The Russians, the Americans and the EU leaders denounced the court sentence as an unduly vicious vendetta against a political opponent – which it no doubt is.
The Ukrainian president thinks the storm will blow over. It won’t. The Tymoshenko case is something post-Soviet political elites are very good at manufacturing, i.e. problems that resemble a suitcase without handle – you cannot throw it away but you are unable to carry it either.
If Yanukovych pardons his political rival she will rightly claim victory – even if the pardon entails a ban on holding a political office. If he continues to keep her behind bars, he’ll have to do it at least until 2015 when the next presidential elections are due. This will very possibly turn Mrs Timoshenko into a modern-day Nelson Mandela – something that most of us would have considered a silly joke just a few months ago.
Yanukovych thinks that he will now use the court’s decision to tell the Russians and the world that the 2009 gas deal with Moscow is null and void and that Kiev doesn’t have to pay the price Gazprom demands under the terms of the contract. This is unlikely to impress Vladimir Putin, to whom the Timoshenko verdict is a slap in the face.
This is not something the Russian PM is likely to take to lightly or easily forgive. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already issued a statement denouncing the trial as “politically motivated.” An anonymous source in Yanukovych’s entourage countered with the claim that “Moscow is defending its ‘agent of influence.’” Hearing this expression from 1970s KGB lingo, I immediately figured out that things are turning out badly for Yanukovych, because this is an admission that the whole case is a show trial. It is interesting that official Kiev is committing the same mistake as official Moscow, which failed to produce one convincing explanation for the jailing of another famous prisoner – Mikhail Khodorkovsky - and gives three conflicting ones instead.
If Yanukovych thinks that he can rely on the European Union to defend him in a confrontation with Moscow, he is sorely mistaken. Brussels will be in no rush to bail out a corrupt regime with a mismanaged, comatose economy, especially if that regime explicitly rejects the EU’s advice on a serious matter. One has to bear in mind that Yulia Tymoshenko has been received as a prime minister not only in Moscow but in other countries too. The Ukrainian president gravely undermined his position in the run up to crucial series of talks on his country’s free trade agreement and association with the European Union.
He now has two options: Either to govern in an increasingly authoritarian manner, putting more pressure on the remaining free media and political opponents; Or to secretly advise the appeals court to overturn the verdict. Then he could claim that in Ukraine the judiciary is independent and justice has been served. No one would believe this, having seen the sham trial of Tymoshenko, but it is a weak, face-saving option inflicting the least possible damage to what remains of Yanukovych’s reputation. Somehow I suspect that the he will choose the former rather than the latter course of action. I’d very much like to be wrong on this one.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.