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Ukraine Calls EU Bluff with “Show Trial”

Yesterday, Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, warned that the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was the clearest and most alarming example of what happens when post-Soviet nostalgia informs state policy in Eastern Europe. Tymoshenko, who left office in 2010, was charged with harming Ukraine’s state interests by signing a gas deal with Russia during her second premiership. Today, she was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison and fined nearly $200 million.

Not only did the West consider the charges politically motivated, but Tymoshenko had been a key figure in the country’s Orange Revolution. The substance and the symbolism of the case have been giving the European Union heartburn. Khrushcheva wrote:

In Tymoshenko’s trial, however, many elements of Stalin’s grotesque legal charades are present: a near-hysterical prosecutor, a compliant judge, a ruler who washed his hands of the affair like Pontius Pilate. Tymoshenko may not be exactly squeaky clean—she made a fortune in the shady world of gas trading in the 1990s, for which she faced criminal charges in Russia. But then again, no one in post-Soviet politics is.

Certainly not Ukraine’s president and Tymoshenko’s mortal political rival Viktor Yanukovych, who spent time in jail as a youth for assault. But the charges against Tymoshenko for “economic crimes” stem from a criminal code that goes back to Khrushchev’s time as the U.S.S.R.’s leader. She is accused of profiting from a contract she negotiated with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to preserve the flow of natural gas to Ukraine and Europe in January 2009. As a result, Ukraine now pays the full European price for Russian gas, putting an end to decades of subsidies. Prosecutors allege that Tymoshenko was bribed by the Russians to betray her country’s interests.

For her part, Tymoshenko claimed Yanukovych was taking Ukraine back “to 1937,” a reference to Stalin’s purges. But what’s most alarming about the case is Yanukovych appears to know what he’s doing. It would be no less unjust if this was a crime of passion–Tymoshenko has been a thorn in his side since he defeated her last year, and Yanukovych’s patience with Tymoshenko, who is a loose cannon herself, had clearly run out. But it would look less like an affront to the EU and more like an internal matter.

That doesn’t seem to be the case. Ukraine is nearing the completion of a free trade agreement with the EU, while jailing Tymoshenko ostensibly for paying too much for Russian gas sends a message to Vladimir Putin as well. Putin would like Ukraine to join an economic union of former Soviet states, and with the EU and Russia both courting Ukraine, Yanukovych may be seeking to maximize his negotiating leverage.

The EU has threatened Yanukovych to back off these charges. Yanukovych responded by calling their bluff. The question now is: Were they bluffing?


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