WARSAW -- Tuesday’s court decision to convict the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison, barring her from electoral politics until 2015, while working on a legislative solution to decriminalize her offense is Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s bet that he can get away with that without harming Ukraine’s European perspective. Though Yanukovych claims that he has no control over an independent judge passing the verdict, few believe that such a politically sensitive case would be left alone by the government in a country not known for its independent judiciary. The reaction to the court’s ruling in Tymoshenko’s case was swift and strong.
Catherine Ashton said, “Justice is being applied selectively in politically motivated prosecutions.” Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament, called for suspending the signing of an Association Agreement with Ukraine and said the “court process and the decision is shameful for a country that has European aspirations.” Even the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, arguably the biggest supporter of Ukraine’s European integration, released a statement admitting that “Ukraine’s image as a country that is undertaking a fundamental pro-European transformation has been tarnished.” The severity of reaction in Brussels and throughout EU member states suggests that European leaders will hold Yanukovych responsible for what’s been described as a “political trial” and a “violation of democracy and the rule of law” by some of Ukraine’s closest supporters in Europe, heavyweight Polish MEPs Jacek Saryusz-Wolski and Pawel Zalewski. Yanukovych’s move made it very difficult for Ukraine’s friends to argue the case for its closer integration with the EU through the Association Agreement and the deep free-trade agreement to be signed at the end of the year. Yanukovych might have overplayed his hand. Whether or not the EU decides to cancel his planned Oct. 20 trip to Brussels will be the best test. Tymoshenko’s conviction was received in Warsaw with much consternation, but without surprise.
Poland has made closer ties between the EU and Ukraine one of the main priorities of its EU Presidency. Poland hoped the Association Agreement would be a crowning achievement of its six-month stint at the EU’s helm. Over many months, Polish diplomacy has been working to avoid the trainwreck of Tymoshenko’s conviction. Poles know that Tymoshenko is no saint, and made the case to the Ukrainian government that she is using the trial to focus attention both domestically and internationally. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski met frequently with Yanukovych to make sure that he fully understood the consequences of her sentencing. Instead, Tymoshenko’s trial overshadowed the Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Warsaw two weeks ago, and now the guilty verdict threatens to derail the most important agreement, the free-trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which would confirm Ukraine’s European direction. Yanukovych made it very difficult for Ukraine’s friends to help him. Yanukovych’s reasons for going through with the trial were both political and economic. The guilty verdict bars Tymoshenko from taking part in the next parliamentary elections, in which she and her supporters would be the biggest challenge for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Convicting Tymoshenko also serves as a shot across the bow to other opposition leaders in Kiev, as well as to backbenchers in Yanukovych’s party. The timing of the verdict is even better explained by economics. Yanukovych’s administration is trying to renegotiate the extremely costly gas deal with Russia that Tymoshenko signed and for which she was sentenced. The agreement costs Ukraine millions of dollars in inflated gas prices at the time when Ukraine, facing an economic crisis, can least afford it. The conviction, which characterizes signing the agreement as a crime and an abuse of power, will strengthen Ukraine’s case to renegotiate the deal. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared worried by this turn of events and called the guilty verdict “dangerous and counterproductive.”
The most likely scenario for the coming weeks is for Yanukovych to support a quick change of the law, which would decriminalize Tymoshenko’s offense, leading to her release. Yanukovych’s hope is that that will quiet the European criticism, and he will be able to carry on business as usual. That might not be the case. European leaders are unlikely to accept anything less than Tymoshenko’s swift release, the return of her full rights to political participation, and the cessation of any other trials of opposition leaders. That might be hard for Yanukovych to do without losing face.
Michal Baranowski is a Senior Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund's Warsaw Office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.