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Tymoshenko's Sentence and Ukraine's Future

Interviewee: Ellen Barry, Moscow Bureau Chief, the New York Times
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 18, 2011

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Yulia Tymoshenko, a former leader of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, was sentenced to seven years in prison (VOA) on charges stemming from a natural gas deal she negotiated (WSJ) with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009 that led to higher natural gas prices for Ukraine. Ellen Barry, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times, says Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who has long seen Tymoshenko as a rival, was a prime mover of the trial and sentencing. There was no evidence in the trial that Tymoshenko had personally benefited from the deal or that there was corruption, says Barry, who is currently in Ukraine. Following the sentencing, the EU delayed Yanukovych's long-planned visit to Brussels to discuss a free-trade agreement (AP), and Barry says it's unclear whether the European Union will now drop plans to integrate Ukraine into the eurozone.

Tymoshenko's sentencing was denounced by virtually everyone (VoiceofRussia), including the United States, the European Union, and Russia. How did this all happen?

There's a long history of bad blood and toxic competition between the current president, Viktor Yanukovych, whose election victory in 2004 was erased by the Orange Revolution, and Tymoshenko. [That revolution] was led by Tymoshenko, who later became prime minister, and Viktor Yushchenko, who became president. Yanukovych believed that they had been responsible for snatching his presidential victory or mandate away. Tymoshenko is a tough, acerbic populist. She is incredibly withering and insulting about Yanukovych, and this has apparently gotten under his skin for many years. So after he won the most recent presidential election last year by a margin of 3.4 over Tymoshenko, that marked the beginning of a number of investigations of figures in the previous government, specifically people around Tymoshenko. There were eleven different cases opened against various people, of whom four or five ended up in prison, including Tymoshenko.

The charges themselves seem bizarre. Tymoshenko was convicted for the way she negotiated the natural gas deal. It seems she is being sentenced for political shortcomings, her negotiating ability.

One complaint I have heard from Western diplomats who have been very critical of the case is that there was never any attempt to show that she benefited from this deal personally. There is no allegation of corruption, or that the deal was in violation of the law. It does indeed look like something that might just be defined as poor performance, but it's hard to understand it as a crime. It's also true that they brought a number of different cases against her; at least two were made public, and they both kind of fell apart. But it's worth noting that there was another case that was opened late last week, and [it seems to be what] all of the high-level officials were talking about. This is a case that dates back fifteen years. We are definitely hearing, "Yes, we now have new charges against her, and it may be that these are going to continue to hang over her head even if she is released from prison."

What happened to her colleague Viktor Yushchenko, the former president?

Ukraine is different from Russia because it is not consolidated or, I would argue, consolidatable, because there is a big cultural split in the population. It means there can never be a Putin, but that hasn't stopped Yanukovych from trying.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko fell out, also in toxic fashion a few years ago when the Orange coalition finally bit the dust. This happened against a backdrop of widespread disillusionment with the Orange movement. People had felt such euphoria about the country turning a corner in 2004, but the government then entered a period of managerial incompetence and intractable infighting. By the latest presidential election in 2010, it was hard to get people excited in the way they had been six years ago.

It's fascinating how the Orange Revolution just fell apart. Is Yanukovych a throwback to the Soviet days, when the Communist Party brooked no dissent?

That was certainly the impression that people had, especially during the 2004 election cycle. But when Yanukovych got into power last year, he--right at the very beginning of his term--articulated a pro-Western path (NationalInterest) for Ukraine, so it's sort of oversimplifying to say that he's pro-Russian or pro-Moscow. He made his first trip as president to Brussels, where he said in a very unambiguous way, "I see the future of Ukraine in Europe, with free trade in Europe, and with eventual membership in the European Union." So that is an important fact about Yanukovych. Another fact [is] that he clearly set about trying to neutralize his political enemies and consolidate power in a way that was very similar to what Putin managed to do in Russian ten years ago.

Does Yanukovych also control the press and the TV, as Putin does?

Ukraine is different from Russia because it is not consolidated or, I would argue, consolidatable, because there is a big cultural split in the population. It means there can never be a Putin, but that hasn't stopped Yanukovych from trying. He does not have total control over the media in the way that Putin managed to accomplish in Russia. It's also much more of an oligarch system compared to Russia, whose oligarchs are now very much extensions of executive power. You just have a much more diversified structure of power here.

Explain a bit about Ukraine's demographics.

In the west of the country, you have people who identify themselves very passionately as Ukrainian nationalists and identify with the anti-Soviet partisan movements of the 1940s. In the east of the country, which is the industrialized part of Ukraine, people speak Russian and consider themselves culturally Russian. The biggest difference is in the Crimea, in the south, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based. You occasionally hear rumblings of the Crimea actually wanting to secede and join Russia. This geographic split in what is a country the size of France is one reason it has remained so pluralistic. It is perhaps the most pluralistic of the post-Soviet nations, and what we see playing out there is an attempt to reconfigure power to remove that tension.

Tymoshenko herself is from the eastern part of Ukraine.

She grew up in the east actually, but she's a brilliant kind of image-maker. She basically rebranded herself as a kind of peasant wonder woman about ten years ago when she went from being a brown-haired Russian-speaking business tycoon from the east to a blond goddess of the wheat fields.

She speaks Ukrainian now?

She does. But the point is that she captures the loyalty of people in the west and the center of the country, and she has remarkable political skills. She's regarded as perhaps the only political figure capable of uniting various threads of dissent into something that is actually a threat to people in power. Yanukovych is not wrong to see her as a potential threat, although if you look at her polling ratings and you look at her performance in the last election cycle, it's not as if she has a huge groundswell of public support. There's much less of an outcry against her conviction in Ukraine than there is, for example, among Western European governments.

Even Putin criticized the Tymoshenko verdict.

Russians view the gas case against Tymoshenko--which is based upon an agreement she made with Putin--as a ploy to renegotiate the 2009 gas deal with Russia. That deal was in fact not financially beneficial to Ukraine. Russia sees this as a sort of complex ploy so that the Ukrainians can come back to the table and invalidate a deal that was very good for Russia.

The EU has been very critical of the trial, and Yanukovych's trip to Brussels to discuss future ties was cancelled today. What does this mean?

There has been some shifting in positions because of the international criticism. [On Monday], I met with Yanukovych, and he said that he did plan to go to Brussels, although he acknowledged that he might not be received there. He said if they don't want him there, "I'll just keep flying." [It is] sort of a game of who blinks first, because Ukraine understands that the EU has invested a lot of time and a lot of treasure in getting this association and free-trade agreements to their final stages, and it would be a huge loss if he whole process goes down the drain.

There are multiple players. There's the IMF, which is asking Yanukovych to raise natural gas prices, which would be a very unpopular political move as a condition of getting the next tranche of IMF money, and then there's Russia, which has its own set of interests. So you have Yanukovych negotiating with three different distinct entities. This is going to be an intense week for him.

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