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The Tymoshenko Reality Show

Yulia Tymoshenko uses her iPad to take a photograph during a trial hearing in Kyiv last month.

Yulia Tymoshenko uses her iPad to take a photograph during a trial hearing in Kyiv last month.

For Ukrainians, the brief 24-hour respite from the reality show that is the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is over. The case resumed today in a Kyiv courtroom.

From the day the confrontation between the administration of current President Viktor Yanukovych and Tymoshenko began, the two sides have seemed like speeding trains, bound to collide at some point. All the warnings and appeals voiced by Western governments, rights activists, and opposition leaders to refrain from politically motivated prosecutions and adhere to the rule of law fell on deaf ears.

Tymoshenko seems to have been expecting her arrest. On August 5, the day she was taken into custody, her press service uploaded a video to YouTube in which she explained why she had chosen not to flee the country, why she is not afraid of the charges against her, and how she will continue to protect the interests of those 11 million who voted for her in the presidential elections.

“Regardless of where I am, free or behind bars, I feel that I have enough strength to go through these tribulations that have been prepared for me, and together with you, return our country to the path of prosperity, justice, strengthening the national spirit and dignity,” Tymoshenko says in the video.

A different bit of digital celluloid tells another story.

“In Europe, law enforcement authorities protect the ruling powers and the opposition. But here, law enforcement authorities protect only that political group that happens to be in power. He who loses the presidential elections goes to jail." These prophetic words were uttered by the Donetsk City Council Secretary Mykola Levchenko in a documentary film about the city called “The Other Chelsea – A Story from Donetsk."

What has been happening to Tymoshenko since Yanukovych defeated her in the last presidential election seems to point to the veracity of Levchenko’s claim.

Tymoshenko is accused of abusing her prime ministerial office, in particular of signing a gas deal with Russia that was disadvantageous for Ukraine. After much drama both in and outside the prosecutor’s office in Kyiv, her trial finally began in late June.

That’s when the reality show really hit its stride.

From the first day, Tymoshenko refused to recognize the authority of the court. She would not stand when the judge entered the courtroom, nor would she address him as “your honor." She called the trial a political witch hunt and regularly tweeted its twists and turns directly from the courtroom on her iPad.

Young presiding Judge Rodion Kireyev’s cup of judicial suffering and capacity to ignore insults finally reached its limit on August 5. He ordered that Yulia Tymoshenko be arrested.

Hundreds of special forces accompanied the petite Tymoshenko as she walked to the paddy wagon, head held high, her golden plait glistening in the warm summer sun. She was taken to Lukyanivka prison, a place she knows well, as she was imprisoned there for several weeks in 2001 during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma.

Tymoshenko’s arrest brought on a wave of protest and condemnation from various Western governments and organizations. It seems not to have been heard in Ukraine. The president, who for the last months has been in his summer residence in Crimea, is silent as the grave. Meanwhile, his press secretary, Darka Chepak, has claimed that his office has nothing whatsoever to do with the case, that this is simply justice taking its course.

Religious leaders, writers and artists, and opposition politicians have all petitioned the court to release Tymoshenko on bail. Judge Kireyev’s answer to all the requests was a resounding no. Tymoshenko is to remain in prison until further notice.

In an unexpected turn of events, even Russia has rallied to Tymoshenko’s defense. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued shortly after her arrest not only claims that the 2009 gas agreements were absolutely legal and binding but that they were arrived at with the full support and knowledge of the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia.

When even Russia defends someone, it makes one stop and think. It seems Tymoshenko’s arrest is one of the topics Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wants to discuss with Yanukovych when they meet in Sochi on August 11.

Some analysts have suggested that the real reason for the Tymoshenko trial and arrest is the price of gas. If the 2009 accords, in which Ukraine agreed to pay $450 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas for a 10-year period are declared illegal by a court, Ukraine might be in a position to renegotiate a more advantageous deal with Russia.

Yanukovych desperately wants cheaper gas from the Russians. He has made several overtures to Moscow hoping to drive the price down, among them prolonging the Russia Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol for 25 years. While this got him a price reduction, the Kremlin has been unwilling to renegotiate the basic terms of the gas agreement.

Regardless of whether gas really is at the bottom of the case against Tymoshenko, it is difficult to predict what the most logical and face-saving conclusion of the Yanukovych Machine Vs. Tymoshenko could be. The Yanukovych administration is bound to lose no matter what it does.

If Tymoshenko is sentenced, the perception of a political show trial will be justified and solidified and the former prime minister will be viewed as a victim of an increasingly authoritarian regime. If she is released, Tymoshenko will be vindicated and seen as victorious over the inept and corrupt Ukrainian authorities, who persecuted her out of spite and vengeance. Her release will not be hailed as a victory for the Ukrainian justice system, which is universally believed to be politicized and corrupt.

Either way, Yanukovych loses and Tymoshenko wins.

Prison has a way of making Tymoshenko rise triumphant. It happened in 2001. Then she emerged from her imprisonment an exultant Joan of Arc figure and took on another government.

-- Irena Chalupa

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at