June 06, 2012
Yulia Tymoshenko: Ukraine's Political Football
Oleksandr Ulanovych is the kind of ideal citizen that Yulia Tymoshenko once had on her side.
A small business owner with impeccable English, Polish, and German, Ulanovych was among the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who flooded onto Maydan Square in 2004 during the Orange Revolution.
These days, he's prepping his chain of fast-food restaurants for what he hopes will be a bustling trade during Ukraine's co-hosting of the European soccer championships starting later this week. He's even opening his Kyiv home to Euro 2012 fans visiting from Switzerland and throwing a barbecue in their honor.
The one thing he's not doing? Supporting Tymoshenko.
"She and [former President] Viktor Yushchenko, they had a wonderful chance -- a fantastic and historic chance -- to change the situation in the country," says Ulanovych. "They had huge support from the nation. They had support from abroad. And they didn't do it. They failed. They betrayed millions of people who voted for them and who stood on Maydan for them."
Yulia Tymoshenko, who together with Yushchenko came to represent Ukraine's best hope for a democratic future, no longer has the power to inspire a revolution.
But Tymoshenko, who twice served as prime minister, in 2005 and 2007-2010, is still one of the most influential figures in Ukraine -- even from a jail cell in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where she's currently serving a seven-year prison sentence seen as an attempt by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, to silence her.
Outrage over Tymoshenko's jailing last autumn and what is seen as her continuing harsh treatment has already cost Ukraine plenty, particularly in its relations with Europe.
The European Union has postponed the signing of a landmark trade agreement until Kyiv takes steps to improve judicial conduct. European leaders pulled out of a prestigious Yalta summit last month, forcing Ukraine to put off the event. A number of high-ranking European officials -- including the entire French government -- have even said they will boycott all Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine in protest over Tymoshenko.
The boycott threat has cast a pall over a month seen as a chance for Ukraine to shed its Soviet image and show its European mettle. But it's also hardened attitudes among many Ukrainians that Tymoshenko is part of a larger problem they're weary of dealing with.
"Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are both people from the past," says Dmytro Vasylev, who recently launched a grassroots campaign, Friendly Ukraine, to counter the wave of negative EU publicity washing over the country ahead of the tournament.
"I can't support either of these people," he adds. "They don't think about the development of Ukraine, or the way civil society should think, or how Ukrainians should think about the development of their country as a modern nation."
Tymoshenko's jail sentence is based on charges she overstepped her authority as prime minister in penning a disadvantageous gas deal with Russia in 2009.
Prosecutors opened a case against her shortly after she lost a hotly contested presidential vote to Yanukovych the following year.
The trial that followed, critics said, was so vicious and so riddled with procedural violations that Tymoshenko's guilt became not only impossible to judge but nearly irrelevant in comparison to the political campaign being waged against her.
A number of her allies have faced similar pressure, including former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, now serving a four-year sentence for embezzlement and abuse of office.
The 51-year-old Tymoshenko's martyrlike reputation has only grown in jail, as she has complained of ill-treatment at the hands of her Kharkiv captors and staged a brief hunger strike.
But Tymoshenko is far from a political innocent. Long before the Orange Revolution, many believed she had used her role as the head of Ukraine's United Energy Systems to make millions reselling gas siphoned off from Russian supplies.
Her "gas princess" past has prompted questions about the wisdom of the EU's current loyalty to her case. But Dag Hartelius, Sweden's ambassador to the 27-member bloc, says the issue for Brussels is about rule of law -- and nothing else.
"It's not so much a question of her background or what she may or may not have done in the past," he says. "It's a question of how the law-enforcement system in Ukraine has been working. And you have to keep in mind it's not only a question of Mrs. Tymoshenko. There's also Mr. Lutsenko and others."
'Tired Of Ukraine'
A number of European institutions have rallied behind Tymoshenko, including the European Parliament, which recently called for an international monitor to be present at all future court appearances by the ex-premier.
But as a bloc, the EU has foundered on the issue of Ukraine, particular since Yanukovych's ascent and a perceived swing by Kyiv back toward Russia.
Near neighbors like Poland and Lithuania have sought to keep Ukraine's integration prospects strong by urging a policy of engagement. But other, more geographically remote, EU members have been indifferent.
Olga Shumylo-Tapiola of the Carnegie think tank in Brussels says Ukraine has already tested the EU's patience on numerous occasions -- including the infamous political squabbles between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko that brought down the promising Orange alliance, as well as the democratic backpedaling seen under Yanukovych.
In many ways, she says, the EU is "simply lost" in terms of dealing with Ukraine.
"There's a very big number of countries in the EU who are very tired of Ukraine, who are very tired of the Ukrainian leadership and the actions of the last two years," she says. "And they basically just want the situation to somehow resolve itself. But they will not do much to help."
Not everyone, however, is tired of Tymoshenko. She is expected to play a critical role in Ukraine's parliamentary vote this October, with her opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party hoping to use anger over the case to fuel an election victory.
Some in Ukraine are even hoping to see Tymoshenko herself stage a political comeback.
Irina Toldina, a 31-year-old lawyer, lives with her husband and 5-year-old son in Kharkiv -- just blocks from the hospital where Tymoshenko has reluctantly received medical treatment for back pain during her prison term.
It's a pocket of the country not known for its warm embrace of the ex-premier, with city officials even mulling a ban on rallies in her support.
But Toldina says life was "unequivocally" better under Tymoshenko, both in terms of business climate and personal freedoms.
And even as she looks forward to the excitement of a month at the heart of the Euro 2012 tournament, she says European officials like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are "absolutely right" to threaten a boycott over Tymoshenko's treatment at trial.
"When they showed her trial, I understood as a lawyer that that was no kind of trial," she says. "Every kind of professional norm related to the conduct of the law was violated completely. So from a professional point of view, as well as a moral one, I simply can't not support that person."
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