Yanukovych’s decision to authorise a Kafkaesque trial against Yulia Tymoshenko is proving to be his most counterproductive yet, writes Denis Macshane. Having created an unlikely heroine, and reduced EU integration from the hypothetical to the impossible, it is in Yanukovych’s best interests to ensure his rival is released swiftly.
A show-trial that shames Europe has been taking place in Kyiv. Ukraine's democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, is allowing rival Yulia Tymoshenko to go on trial for decisions she took when in office. Tymoshenko meanwhile awaits a verdict after one of the more squalid abuses of justice seen —and this in a country that claims to be a democracy knocking on the doors of Europe.
All politicians newly arrived in power blame their predecessors. In Britain, Conservatives attack Gordon Brown, blaming him, the laws or decisions he made, or the agreements he signed for every problem Britain faces. In Russia, Mr Putin still blames Gorbachev and Yeltsin for Russia's contemporary problems. United States politics is bitterly polarised. To read the liberals on George W Bush or the right on President Obama, one would get an impression the country’s political leadership had been corrupted by malign, quasi-criminal forces.
But this is why democratic politics is a great safety valve. It allows all the hate and dislike and accusations of those in power to be diverted into the ballot box. You don't like Ms Tymoshenko, think she is a disaster for Ukraine and sold the store with her gas deals with Russia? Fine. Go and vote for Mr Yanukovych. That's just what Ukrainians did as they pushed Ms Tymoshenko into the political dustbin of history.
But now Mr Yanukovych has done the impossible. He had turned a controversial, divisive politician into a European Joan of Arc placed on trial in what the world sees as an act of vindictive revenge by Ukraine's'new rulers.
Of course politicians who can be accused of taking money from business for personal or party enrichment have to face legal processes. Jaques Chirac now has to answer allegations that he took money to pay for party campaigns. Helmut Kohl faced similar accusations. In Spain, more than 800 politicians, civil servants and business leaders have been arrested this century for taking bribes in exchange for giving permission for housing or business development.
And the interface between money and politics, between oligarchs and political leaders, is certainly not unknown in Ukraine. All of Ukraine’s main oligarchs own TV stations. Even Valery Khoroshkovsky, who heads the SBU, Ukraine’s State Security Service, owns the Inter chain of TV stations. It is like the head of MI6 running Channel 5 or the Director of the CIA having a second job as a media tycoon.
"It is hard to see how any agreement with the EU can be signed as long as Kiev rejects a core value of European democracy - namely that elections, not courts, are where politicians settle their differences."
Mr Khoroshkovky, it should be noted, was appointed by the former president, Viktor Yuschenko, and was endorsed by a majority in the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament. Like General de Gaulle in the 1960s, whoever is in power in Ukraine wants to make sure the TV news supports his position. The oligarchs adapted to Yuschenko and now make sure Yanukovich has an easy ride. Victor Pinchuk, a top Ukrainian oligarch, has gone a step further. Every summer he organises a fiesta at Yalta for European political grandees where they can discuss the affairs of the world and enjoy his generous hospitality. Tony Blair, Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski attended this summer’s Yalta gabfest. President Yanukovich was there as well and had to cope with some in-his-face criticism.
So this is clearly not Stalinism, not even Putinism. Indeed, are Ukrainian oligarchs any different from American or European business leaders who run big oil, or big media, or big banks, dispensing largesse to the political class by the way of well-remunerated speaking engagements or sponsorship of conferences, travel, and think-tanks?
Yet Ukraine is the only country in Europe where a former Prime Minister is on trial for acts she publicly undertook while in office. Next year, Ukraine and Poland will host Euro 2012, the football championship that will get as many headlines as the London Olympics. It is extremely embarrassing for Ukraine's Euro 2012 partner, Poland, to have to send its president, Bronislaw Komorowski to his opposite number in Kyiv to beg for an end to this show trial. Can Euro 2012 take place without considerable political and diplomatic disturbance if the show trial against Ms Tymoshenko results in her imprisonment?
It is also hard to see how any agreement with the EU can be signed as long as Kiev rejects a core value of European democracy - namely that elections, not courts, are where politicians settle their differences. Ukraine is looking at changing its criminal code which would remove the articles used to prosecute Ms Tymoshenko. This should happen quickly and Ms Tymoshenko should be released so that Ukraine can be seen as a European nation where democratic culture is sinking permanent roots.
The EU recently held its Eastern Partnership conference in Warsaw. The results were nugatory, underlining the points made by Spain’s foreign policy thinker, José Ignacio Torreblanca in his new book, which deserves an English publisher, La Fragmentacion dél Poder Europeo (‘The fragmentation of European power‘). Torreblanca’s argument is that the EUs’ power to influence its neighbours’ politics and policies crumbled when EU leaders began renationalising their foreign policy and lost the will and willingness to take risks in allowing countries like Ukraine or Georgia to start on the road – long as it may be – to EU membership. Many other post-communist nations cleaned up their act — however much it appeared to be against national or natural traditions — in other to make the EU grade. And even if they did not fully clean up their act, significant steps were initiated in the direction of living by rule of law and democratic norms.
Now EU enlargement has run out of steam. While the economic crisis grips Europe, Eurozone and non-Euro economies alike, it is hard to see much that can encourage Ukrainian modernisers and European-style democrats to show commitment and energy. Ukraine does not need to shoot itself in the foot with this Kafkaesque trial. It is at the ballot box that revenge can be taken upon politicians, not in the court-room once they have left office.