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What is Tymoshenko fighting for?

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The trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has rallied the opposition behind her. Her supporters believe the outcome is already decided and her only hope of justice lies in the European Court of Human Rights. Yet beyond a call for her own personal liberty, does anybody know what Tymoshenko actually stands for, asks Valery Kalnysh?

Valery Kalnysh
24 August 2011

With every day that passes, Ukrainian politicians and journalists are increasingly convinced that Yulia Tymoshenko will be sentenced to an actual term of imprisonment. Some of the former Prime Minister's supporters, who in the past would not even consider the possibility of their leader ending up behind bars, now calmly accept such a possibility. “Yulia will most likely end up in prison. Rumour has it Bankovaya [Street, the seat of the Ukrainian Presidential administration] has decided to give her seven years. In Ukraine the chances of justice being done are nil, because the justice system is non-existent,” one of Mrs. Tymoshenko's defence lawyers admitted to the author.

The trial itself is a strange spectacle to behold. On the one hand there's Judge Rodion Kireyev, a young man who, until recently, had probably never dreamt he could become the arbiter of the fate of a Ukrainian as famous as Yulia Tymoshenko. Kireyev has made every effort to appear to observe the letter of the law in handling the case. He has strictly observed all the procedures, creating the impression that he treats the court of law like a musical score or a maths textbook – there's no need to prove anything as long as the procedures are followed.

“Yulia will most likely end up in prison. Rumour has it Bankovaya [Street, the seat of the Ukrainian Presidential administration] has decided to give her seven years. In Ukraine the chances of justice being done are nil, because the justice system is non-existent,” one of Mrs. Tymoshenko's defence lawyers admitted to the author."

On the other hand, as soon as the case files were handed over to the Pechersky Court, Yulia Tymoshenko began to demonstrate her contempt for the judge, the court, and the country's entire justice system, ostentatiously flouting the rules of court procedure and insulting the judge ... The public response has been very negative, yet this behaviour encapsulates Yulia Tymoshenko's strategy – trying to be stronger, more brazen and more dynamic than the judge and the prosecution.

The essence of the court case itself is not too complex and the indictment can be summed up as follows: Tymoshenko is accused of having unlawfully signed a document in January 2009 instructing Oleg Dubina, head of “Naftogaz Ukrainy”, the national gas shareholding company, to sign a gas contract on terms disadvantageous to Ukraine. In this document the basic price of gas for Ukraine was set at $450, i.e. nearly three times higher than it had been before the contract was signed. The second point of the contract stipulated that Russia would pay Ukraine a transit fee of $1.7 (a 10 cent increase on the previous price) for pumping its gas to the EU countries.  The third point involved a 20% discount off the basic price for the entire year of 2009.

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Even though the court ordered her arrest Yulia Tymoshenko has remained the most effective opposition figure in Ukraine. Is her trial an attempt of Yanukovich leadership  to neutralise her political power?

The current Ukrainian government — for example Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov, who openly describes this agreement as “one-sided” — has been trying to get Russia to reduce the gas price from the day he took office. Russia, quite naturally, is not prepared to give up such favourable conditions. After all, few countries in the EU pay as much as “friendly and fraternal Ukraine”. Kyiv pays the same basic price as Rome, even though the latter capital is 2,500 kilometres further from Moscow than the former. Since Russia has a monopoly on supplying Ukraine with gas, setting the price high has provided the Kremlin with excellent leverage for dealing with its own issues. For example, by agreeing to reduce the basic price by US $100, Moscow managed to extend the lease of Russia's naval base on the Black Sea. 

There are several possible explanations why Tymoshenko accepted these conditions. The Prosecutor General believes she agreed because Moscow had given her an ultimatum: either she consented or a 15-year-old criminal case against her would be reopened. The case concerns over US $400 million that United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a company headed by Tymoshenko at the time, allegedly owes Russia's Ministry of Defence. Former President Viktor Yushchenko is convinced that Tymoshenko agreed to “surrender” Ukraine in exchange for Kremlin support of her candidacy in the 2010 presidential election. Tymoshenko herself believes she had no alternative: she was driven solely by a desire to save from a freezing winter both Ukraine and countries of the EU, whom the 2009 gas war between Kyiv and Moscow had taught what it feels like to manage with unheated homes and reduced gas pressure in household ovens.

Comparisons are frequently drawn – especially in the West – between Yulia Tymoshenko and another prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another comparison, however, comes to mind: with Benazir Bhutto, the Black Rose of Pakistan, who was assassinated in 2007. What the two women have in common is a devotion to social programmes, a passion for fighting corruption and for roses – even today her supporters send her flowers in court. Unlike Bhutto, Tymoshenko is not prepared to leave the country to fight the Yanukovych regime from abroad. Nevertheless, it is Europe, and, to a lesser extent the US, that Tymoshenko is relying on. Having accepted that she will be found guilty and assuming the verdict won't be quashed on appeal, the ex-Prime Minister is planning to take the defence of her rights to the European Court of Human Rights. In that court, she's prepared to address the judge as “Your Honour” and show her respect for him by standing up.

But until that happens – her supporters believe a verdict is to be expected no later than mid-September – Yulia Tymoshenko will symbolise the struggle against the regime. In this respect the comparison with Khodorkovsky is quite apt. However strange it may sound, the court proceedings involving her are proving highly popular with journalists. World capitals have protested against her remand in custody, while expressing no opinion on the detention of former Minister of Interior Yuri Lutsenko or former Defence Minister Valery Ivashchenko.

"The only problem is that the former Prime Minister has nothing to offer Ukraine except to insist that she must be freed and to accuse President Viktor Yanukovych of being authoritarian."

Tymoshenko now features in the Western media as often as she did during the Orange Revolution. Even those she has accused of having sold out and betrayed opposition ideals have attended her trial, for example the chairman of the “Front of Change”, Arseny Yatseniuk, who came fourth in the most recent presidential election and who regards himself as no less of an opposition figure than Tymoshenko herself. A Committee for Resisting Dictatorship has been set up and mass protest rallies called for 24 August, Ukrainian Independence Day.

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The only problem is that the former Prime Minister has nothing to offer Ukraine except to insist that she must be freed and to accuse President Viktor Yanukovych of being authoritarian. In the fight for her own freedom the global idea, a goal to fight for, has been lost. It is quite likely that Yulia Tymoshenko will devote her time in prison to searching for answers to these questions – members of her Batkivshchina (Fatherland) Party are convinced that she is irreplaceable and will continue to lead opposition activities from behind bars. Incidentally, her supporters are also convinced that Tymoshenko might not survive prison and might be assassinated, for example by poisoning – which is why she's been accepting very little prison food in the Kyiv detention centre where she has been held since 5 August, and has had her relatives supply her with food. The parallel between Tymoshenko and Bhutto is indeed a matter of increasing concern.

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