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Tymoshenko Protests Continue In Ukraine, As Interested Moscow Looks On

  • Daisy Sindelar

Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko protest outside the court where her trial is taking place in Kyiv on August 8.

Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko protest outside the court where her trial is taking place in Kyiv on August 8.

In some parts of the world, a jail sentence might sound the death knell for a politician's presidential ambitions.

But in a country like Ukraine, which on August 5 placed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko behind bars for contempt, it could prove the first step in a brilliant campaign. As her trial resumed on August 8, the former prime minister expressed optimism the case would end in her favor.

"I feel confident. Everything else, I believe, is a question of our common and unifying work in society, our struggle against the regime," Tymoshenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "I think we will achieve victory."

And Russia shows every sign of putting its weight behind the underdog, with a high-placed Kremlin official saying the move would have "long-lasting consequences" for the man who put her in jail, President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko's arrest came amid a high-profile trial on charges of striking a politically profitable but financially deleterious deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom while serving her second tenure as prime minister in 2009.

Yulia Tymoshenko has been extremely critical of the trial and judge.
Yanukovych says she violated procedure by proceeding with the deal without a sign-off from parliament. If convicted, she stands to serve as much as 10 years in prison.

But she and her supporters say the deal was legal. They say both the trial and her arrest are nothing more than an attempt by Yanukovych to eliminate her once and for all from the field of potential political rivals. Tymoshenko narrowly lost to Yanukovych in last year's presidential vote, but remains a highly visible and charismatic member of the opposition whose eyes remain firmly fixed on the presidency.

Putin In Her Corner

Moscow has defended the Gazprom deal, which ended a bitter dispute between the two sides but nearly doubled the amount Ukraine paid for Russian natural gas. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement on its website, defended the gas agreement as being "in strict accordance" with the law.

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who supervised Russia's energy deals while serving as deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, says he believes the deal had political overtones. Tymoshenko was able to claim a personal PR victory by ending the gas war, and postponed the backlash by persuading Russia to hold off on the price hike until after the 2010 elections.

But Nemtsov still says the deal was essentially clean. It's a point, he told RFE/RL's Russian Service, that Tymoshenko's partner in the deal, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appears eager for everyone to understand.

"Putin reasonably believes that if they're going to put her in jail as a result of this agreement, then sooner or later someone will put him in jail for the same thing," Nemtsov says. "I actually don't think that either Tymoshenko or Putin did anything criminal in this particular instance."

Both the United States and the European Union have condemned Tymoshenko's arrest, saying the move throws doubt on the country's commitment to rule of law. But Judge Rodion Kireyev on August 8 rejected requests for her release, including a request by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to place her under alternative clerical supervision.

Political Capital

Tymoshenko, whose arrest followed prosecutors' accusations she was disrupting the court, appeared unbent by her weekend in jail. Tymoshenko's husband Oleksandr said she was distressed by the fact that one of her cellmates smoked.

Russia's Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Tymoshenko in Yalta in November 2009.
Dressed immaculately with her trademark braid crown neatly in place, Tymoshenko refused again to stand before the judge in court today, saying it would be akin to "kneeling in front of the mafia." (Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, apparently weary of Tymoshenko's courtroom behavior, which included using Twitter to post critical comments about the judge, has accused her of "deliberate, systematic neglect of standards of procedure that are identical to those in most European countries.")

Meanwhile, hundreds of her supporters gathered outside the courthouse, while many remained stationed at a protest tent city in central Kyiv -- a scene reminiscent of the 2004 Orange Revolution that first rocketed Tymoshenko to political prominence.

Tymoshenko, who enjoyed a lucrative career as a businesswoman before turning to government, has been jailed several times during her time as a politician, including a brief stint in 2001 on forgery charges. Nemtsov believes Yanukovych's attempt to remove her from the limelight may prove a massive miscalculation, as public opinion swings in her favor.

"This isn't the first time she's been put in jail, and I don't remember a single instance where people forgot about her just because she was in prison. To the contrary, she usually experiences a kind of political resurrection, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes," Nemtsov notes.

"With all of his slimy, illegal moves, Yanukovych is almost certain to transform Tymoshenko into the leader of the Ukrainian people. Even those who don't like her -- and in Ukraine that's no less than half the nation -- are starting to feel sorry for her."

Moscow Changing Horses?

Is Viktor Yanukovych (right) no longer the Kremlin's man?
Moscow's show of support for Tymoshenko may indicate that Yanukovych -- who enjoyed solid Kremlin support during the 2004 election that led to the Orange Revolution -- may have fallen out of favor since finally stepping up to the presidency last year.

Yanukovych, traditionally viewed as pro-Russian and anti-Western, has defied expectations by refusing to hand Moscow control of a number of energy pipelines and failing to carry through on a law elevating Russian to official-language status in Ukraine.

Moscow's support for Tymoshenko has stoked speculation that the Kremlin is attempting to express its displeasure with Yanukovych's performance. But Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the Russian leadership may already be looking ahead to the presidential election in Ukraine in 2015 and hoping to earn some negotiating points with comeback kid Tymoshenko.

"If Russia supports Yulia Tymoshenko and she ends up gaining political support in her country and evolves once against as a likely contender," Lipman says, "then it would be good for Russia to have somebody who owes Russia support in a difficult situation."

Lipman says it's not quite clear if Yanukovych is winning or losing by jailing Tymoshenko. But, she adds, "he's certainly taking a serious risk."

Mumin Shakirov of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Dmytro Barkar of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

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