Ill-Advised Political Trials of Timoshenko, Lutsenko, and Other Opponents Undermine Yanukovich Administration

August 16, 2011
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Suppose that hidden enemies of the administration of President Viktor Yanukovich wished to concoct a plan that would, with one stroke, accomplish the following:

  • Revive the political prospects of the President’s most identifiable rival;
  • Provide a rallying cry for completely discredited “Orange” opposition forces; and
  • Damage ties not only with western powers – which had resigned themselves to a shift away from the predecessor “Orange” regime’s “Euro-Atlantic” orientation – but even cast a pall on relations between Kiev and Moscow.

Could any such enemies have thought of a better initiative than the spectacle presented by the prosecutions of former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, and other opposition figures?

Consider first the revived political prospects for Ms. Timoshenko herself. Following her defeat in the second round of the 2010 presidential race, she sought to re-create the “Orange” street strategy that had succeeded so well in 2004. There were virtually no takers, neither in Ukraine nor in the western capitals that had been so keen to accuse Mr. Yanukovich of “stealing” the 2004 vote. Instead, they quietly encouraged Timoshenko to back down gracefully.

That has all changed now. The same governments that seemed relieved to see her shuffled off to political oblivion are now rallying to Timoshenko’s cause. She is back in the limelight, her natural element. In the courtroom she is formally the defendant, but no one doubts who’s actually running the show.

Meanwhile, opposition forces that had been in complete disarray, as well as at each other’s throats, have pulled together in a newly formed Dictatorship Resistance Committee uniting the European Party of Ukraine, Defenders of the Fatherland party, People's Self-Defense, Batkivschyna, Reforms and Law party, Our Ukraine, Popular Rukh of Ukraine, and the Front for Changes party. (It is noteworthy that the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda,” a cartoonish nationalist opposition seemingly “made-to-order for Party of Regions, is not part of the Committee. However, Svoboda also has denounced the trial.) Whether these collected voices of “Orange” Ukraine can sustain their newfound unity remains a question, but there’s no denying they’re better off than they were before Timoshenko’s indictment.

Most notable has been the international reaction. The United States, the primary contributor to the $12.5-billion IMF program whose extension has been a major Yanukovich accomplishment, has insisted on her immediate release. Members of the European Union, with which Mr. Yanukovich’s administration is trying to negotiate a free-trade association while rebuffing membership in the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, also have voiced support for the former prime minister. Wilfried Martens, president of the European Peoples Party, a collection of center-right parties in the European Parliament, voiced his full support for Timoshenko, adding that “it is clear that the Ukrainian government has a poor understanding of European values and has opted for power-politics reminiscent of the pre-Orange revolution days.”

A recent report from the “Danish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights condemned not only the political motivations but the conduct of criminal trials against Timoshenko, Lutsensko, and two other former Orange officials. Most seriously, the report accuses the Kiev administration of “criminalizing normal political decisions with which the present government disagrees,” observing that “most of the charges are of a character which would never be considered a criminal offense in countries with a different legal tradition.”

In the lead-up to President Yanukovich’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, the position of the “Russian foreign ministry was short and to the point: all gas agreements of 2009 “were concluded in strict accordance with the national legislations of the two states and with international law, and for their signing there had been received the necessary instructions of the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine”; Russia presumes that the trial “should be fair and impartial” while “observing the elementary humanitarian norms and rules.”

Timoshenko – hardly considered Moscow’s favorite Ukrainian politician – pointed to the Russian statement as proof that she had done nothing wrong in agreeing to a price structure between the two countries considered by many observers to have been too favorable to Moscow. By the same token, some believe the real aim of the Timoshenko prosecution is to pressure Moscow on gas pricing, or perhaps to come up with a “gimmick to vitiate an “illegal” price deal and get a better one – however unlikely that might be in light of “Kiev’s confused energy and trade policy toward Russia.

Whether or not energy is at the heart of the prosecution, there’s little question what the political fallout is, in the assessment of the “U.S. semi-official RFE/RL, not a friend of close Ukraine-Russia ties:

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.

Which leads back to the initial question of what enemy of President Yanukovich possibly could have done more damage to his administration, if that had been the conscious intent. Unless one assumes the Timoshenko and other trials were entirely the product of cold, objective prosecutorial imperatives, it must be concluded that the President has been placed in this position by members of his own entourage who have miscued him on energy, trade, nationalism, “language, “demography, and much else. Now, by wasting the President’s political capital on implausible show trials, his administration finds itself more isolated internally and under increasing international pressure.

Indeed, there are some who suggest that isolation is precisely the objective of some advisers, leading to a “Ukraine that begins to look more like Belarus. With politicized trials against opponents and increasing use of law enforcement agencies as tools of political repression and outright expropriation (and consequent “erosion of support for the administration from small and medium business), added to decline in POR’s regional support base, some members of the administration’s brain trust may imagine that President Yanukovich – by morphing into an imitation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka – would have complete freedom to play a clever “strategic balancing game between Russia, Europe, and the United States.

Hopefully, the President himself will see the looming danger in time. Far from maximizing Ukraine’s leverage with its partners – both east and west – the current course onto which the administration has been steered suggests a failure to distinguish between questionable “tactical squirming and strategic vision. It is an error of judgment neither President Yanukovich nor Ukraine can afford.