The news that imprisoned former premier of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko is now facing charges of embezzlement, linked to her time as the president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine in the 1990s, raises questions about the motivations of the Ukrainian government and President Viktor Yanukovych in particular.
Why was she jailed in the first place? And why has an old issue, linked to a time when virtually all the Ukrainian oligarchs had their hands in the public trough, suddenly resurfaced?
On Wednesday, Tymoshenko received a seven-year prison sentence for her part in a gas deal negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009 that was "disadvantageous for Ukraine." Throughout the trial she had expressed her contempt for the judge and prosecutor and argued that the procedure was politically motivated. Virtually all the Western governments concurred while Russia was furious that the 2009 agreement had been so publicly reopened.
Yanukovych, supposedly, wished to rid himself of his main political opponent before the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2012. However, the trial and verdict endangered Ukraine's chances of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, which has been under negotiation for some time. Some critics, such as David Kramer of Freedom House, maintain that the discussions should be postponed until Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders have been released and pardoned.
But why was she tried and imprisoned at all?
One suggestion, offered by Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, is that Yanukovych persecuted Tymoshenko because he believed he could get away with it.
The premise is that for the Europeans, relations with Ukraine are too important to be imperilled by a domestic quarrel.
Writing in a Russian source, analysts Maksim Logvinov and Vladislav Zhukovsky speculated that the goal of the original trial was to force Russia to revise the price of gas sold to Ukraine. They also maintain that targeting Tymoshenko was a means to divert blame from the government for the economic crisis that Ukraine will face shortly because of the high prices of gas. However, the gamble failed because all the relevant parties - Russia, the EU, and the United States - took the side of Tymoshenko and criticized the Ukrainian authorities. In many ways the trial became a cause célèbre for the embattled Ukrainian opposition.
Yet the actions of Yanukovych still lack rationale and these analyses perhaps attribute a degree of Machiavellianism and political astuteness to the president that have not always been evident, despite his triumphant election victory in January 2010.
Ukrainian analyst Vitalii Portnikov has provided the most logical explanation: the initiatives in the Tymoshenko case are not coming from the president but from a "party of war" within the leadership that includes the head of the Secret Service (SBU), Valery Khoroshkovsky, Serhii Yevochkin of the presidential administration, Energy Minister Yury Boyko, prominent businessman Dmytro Firtash and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kostyantyn Hryshchenko. Their goal is to isolate Yanukovych and undermine any plans for integration with the EU or the Russian-led Customs Union. Both are perceived as threats to their own power.
The presence within this group of Firtash is possibly the most significant. An ally of former president Viktor Yushchenko, he established a position for his company RosUkrEnergo as an intermediary in the bitter gas war between Russia and Ukraine. Firtash offered to buy the gas from Russia and resell it to Ukraine.
Tymoshenko, a woman of formidable business acumen, cut Firtash out of the equation with the 2009 agreement. He is now officially back in business (he also controls much of Ukraine's titanium industry), and out for revenge. The goal appears to be to ensure the complete demise of his rival.
As for the new charges, there is little question that Tymoshenko - then known as the "gas princess" - benefited from state patronage. From 1995 to 1997, when she was president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, she was given highly lucrative government contracts - including control over imported gas from Russia - by then Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was later convicted for money laundering and wire fraud by a U.S. court. Yet the list of those who could be tried for past crimes in Ukraine is a long one that includes many current oligarchs, and one past president.
It seems safest to assume that either Yanukovych is far more scheming than many have surmised hitherto, or else (and more likely) he is being prodded and pushed by powerful interest groups whose goal is to keep Ukraine free from economic ties so that they are left free to amass wealth.
Such "freedom" requires the obliteration of the opposition and its leader, manipulation of elections, and systematic deployment of the SBU against their critics. In Arel's view, by targeting Yulia Tymoshenko the Ukrainian government has demonstrated it has the wherewithal to stop opponents from challenging the president.
The main casualty is democratic Ukraine.
But few of the "party of war" are likely to lose sleep over that.
David Marples is distinguished university professor at the University of Alberta and director of the Stasiuk Program on Contemporary Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. This article, reprinted with the author's permission, originally was published in the Edmonton Journal here.
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