There are three obvious explanations for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s behavior in the case of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has just been sentenced to seven years in prison and a $186 million fine for a decision she made while in office that would never end up in court in a normal democratic country. None of the three reflect well on Yanukovych.
The first explanation is that he is simply waging a vendetta through the courts against Tymoshenko’s party. Seventeen other members of the government she led have also faced criminal charges over their conduct while in office, and several are already serving jail terms. So maybe Yanukovych is just a political thug who wants to destroy the opposition.
That would make sense, for Tymoshenko is a real threat to him: In last year’s presidential election, she lost by only 3 percent of the votes. However, she herself favours a different explanation.
“This is an authoritarian regime,” Tymoshenko said when her sentence was read out on Tuesday. “Against the background of European rhetoric, Yanukovych is taking Ukraine farther from Europe by launching such political trials.”
“Taking Ukraine farther from Europe” is political code for taking it closer to Russia. There is a tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union over the future orientation of Ukraine, and in this analysis Yanukovych, who draws his support from the heavily Russified eastern Ukraine, is secretly Moscow’s man.
Tymoshenko, whose votes come mainly from western Ukraine, is the European Union’s favoured candidate for leader of Ukraine. So in this second explanation, favoured by Tymoshenko, she is being railroaded into jail to serve the interests of the Kremlin. But there is a problem with this explanation.
The main charge against Tymoshenko is that she was too generous to Russia in a gas deal she signed in 2009 to end a dispute over the price Ukraine paid for gas and the transit fees it collected for Russian gas flowing across Ukraine in pipelines to customers further west. Tymoshenko has actually been convicted of being too nice to Russia. How can you reconcile that with a Kremlin plot to draw Ukraine into its web?
This is clearly a political prosecution, not a criminal one. Nobody is saying that Tymoshenko was bribed by the Russians, or that she received any direct advantage from the deal she signed with Moscow. Perhaps she was too generous, but much of eastern Europe was freezing at the time and the situation was urgent. At worst, she might be accused of a political misjudgment.
Nobody believes the official claim that the Ukrainian courts are acting independently in this matter, and Yanukovych appears to have angered both the Russians and the West equally by his actions. Could there be a third explanation here? Could it all be just an very clumsy attempt by Yanukovych to prove that he is independent of both sides?
One should never underestimate the role of stupidity in politics, but this explanation is highly unlikely. Yanukovych is a ruthless and devious man, but he is not stupid. Let’s go back to Explanation Two, and try a subtler version of it.
Let us assume that Yanukovych is indeed Moscow’s man, and that his ultimate goal is to integrate Ukraine into the free-trade bloc that Russia is building with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Then he must somehow get the rival proposal for a free-trade agreement with the European Union off the table — but he doesn’t want to cancel it himself, for at least half of Ukrainian voters want closer integration with the West.
So the ideal solution would be to trick the EU into breaking off the free-trade talks with Ukraine by presenting it with some human-rights issue that forces its hand. If the EU suspends the talks over the legal persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, it’s win-win for Yanukovych.
If this is really the strategy, then Moscow would have to play its part by protesting about Tymoshenko’s trial too — as it is indeed doing. Once the Ukraine-EU talks on a free-trade area have been broken off, Kiev and Moscow can kiss and make up. And after a decent interval, Yanukovych could bring Ukraine into the rival customs union with Moscow without too much domestic opposition.
This is what Tymoshenko herself fears. She does not want the EU to break off the free-trade talks because of her trial and conviction. “Ukraine must be saved,” she said last June. “If the EU pushes Ukraine away now and leaves it alone with this regime, our country will be thrown back for several decades.”
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose columns are published in 45 countries.