Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Herman von Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton, Catherine Ashton, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Carl Bildt. This is just a partial list of world leaders who have spoken to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych about the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
During the recent EU Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw, Yanukovych seemingly got such an earful about the Tymoshenko trial that he didn’t even bother staying for the final delegates’ lunch, preferring to fly home instead.
This is nothing new. Ever since the Tymoshenko trial began on June 24, 2011, Western diplomats and politicians have expressed concern about Ukraine using selective justice to go after an inconvenient opposition figure. EU leaders have warned that the EU Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation could be in jeopardy. But all those supplications have fallen on deaf ears. Yanukovych invariably responds with platitudes about the independence of the courts. This would be nice if it were true.
When the hunt for Tymoshenko began earlier this year, 12 criminal cases were opened against her. The government aggressively pursued four and finally settled on one -- abuse of office. Tymoshenko is accused of exceeding her authority when she was prime minister and incurring financial losses to the state by signing a gas agreement with Russia in 2009. The current administration believes this deal was too advantageous for Moscow and has been attempting to renegotiate the contracts. Tymoshenko denies any wrongdoing.
One could stretch one’s imagination and try to believe Yanukovych’s claim that independent Ukrainian courts should be left to do their job if Tymoshenko were being tried for a real crime. Admittedly this is difficult to do considering the current state of Ukraine’s judiciary, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact though, she is on trial because of the policies she pursued as prime minister and because she has been a thorn in Yanukovych’s side for years.
Ukraine has had four presidential elections since it declared independence in 1991. All of the elections have resulted in a peaceful transition of power and no prosecution or persecution of the previous administration. This is the first time in contemporary Ukrainian history where the winner of a presidential contest has gone after the loser. It establishes a dangerous precedent.
Yanukovych will not be president forever. What's to stop his successor, or his successor's successor, from automatically unleashing the prosecutors on him? The result, of course, would be to condemn Ukraine to years of additional political infighting that would probably stall much-needed economic restructuring and reform.
It is almost impossible to find a way out of this political and legal imbroglio. The court is unlikely to find Tymoshenko innocent unless it gets a clear and direct order from the top. So far the Ukrainian president has not shown any sign that this may happen. If Tymoshenko is found guilty and sent to prison, Yanukovych’s reputation as an increasingly authoritarian president will be solidified. In a word, Yanukovych has created a royal mess.
A possible face-saving exit might be provided by the Ukrainian parliament, which is poised to examine legislation that will decriminalize certain economic activities. If passed, the measure would likely strike the article of the criminal code that has been applied in Tymoshenko’s case.
The prosecutor has called for a seven-year sentence for Tymoshenko. She has also claimed that Ukraine incurred a loss of some $190 million to its budget as a result of the 2010 gas agreement. Others in government have put the figure even higher.
Tymoshenko is a divisive figure in Ukraine. Once dubbed the “Gas Princess,” she amassed great wealth in the gas trade in the early 1990s. She then abandoned business and went into politics, serving as deputy prime minister, member of parliament, leader of the opposition, and prime minister. Her fiery speeches during the Orange Revolution transformed her into the lodestar.
The trial is currently adjourned until October 11,when a verdict in the case is widely expected.
Irena Chalupa is a senior RFE/RL Washington correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL