Ukraine's Tymoshenko trial tests EU Patience

KIEV, Ukraine -- As Ukraine’s glamorous opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko languishes in jail, critics of her trial grow ever louder and more prominent, with leading European Union politicians and even the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu joining their ranks in recent days.

Riot policemen block supporters of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko near a court office during a hearing of her trial in Kiev, September 8, 2011. European Union members could block an agreement on closer ties with Ukraine if Kiev continues with a "show trial" against the country's former leader, senior EU diplomats said on Saturday. Placard reads I offered no resistance.

Tymoshenko could be imprisoned for 10 years if found guilty of forcing Ukraine’s state gas firm to sign an unfavourable deal with Russia while she was serving as prime minister.

Several members of her pro-western administration have also been arrested and put on trial since Tymoshenko lost a presidential vote last year to Viktor Yanukovich, the man whose fraudulent election “victory” was overturned by the 2004 Orange Revolution she helped lead.

Constant squabbling between Tymoshenko and her supposed allies paralysed reform and Ukraine’s push for greater integration with the EU, and allowed Yanukovich to recover from his humiliation and take power 18 months ago.

Since then, he says he has been righting the wrongs of the previous administration, while critics accuse him of concentrating power in his own hands, squeezing independent media and emasculating an opposition whose leader is the combative and charismatic Tymoshenko.

“Since the election of President Viktor Yanukovich . . . Ukraine has experienced a significant and alarming deterioration in its democratic framework,” human rights defenders including Bishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama and former Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel wrote this week.

“And the prosecution of opposition members, which has now culminated in the arrest and detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko seems to confirm that the rule of law is being brushed aside.”

Their comments came as President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland – which now holds the rotating EU presidency – told the visiting Yanukovich that plans to finalise a free-trade deal this year between Ukraine and the EU could be derailed by the legal travails of Tymoshenko.

“The Ukrainian authorities need to find a solution that removes any doubts that this trial is an act of political revenge against the opposition,” Komorowski said.

That message to Kiev was strongly reinforced by EU foreign ministers at a recent meeting in Poland, with France’s top diplomat, Alain JuppĂ©, warning that most member states believed “the agreement can be finalised only if the Tymoshenko case is solved . . . It means having a free and fair trial and abandoning the unjustified charges against her”.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said the trade deal would flounder if Ukraine continued “with show trials of that sort”.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, said the bloc was following the trial “with great concern” but talks on an EU association deal for Ukraine were continuing “because . . . it’s what the opposition would want and it’s for the people of Ukraine”.

Last month, Ashton urged Kiev to allow Tymoshenko to be visited by an independent medical examiner and be given appropriate care, amid reports her health had deteriorated since she was jailed on August 5th for alleged contempt of court.

She refuses to stand for the judge, mocks him and calls him a Yanukovich stooge.

The trial has deepened divisions in Ukraine, as it marks 20 years since independence was restored with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tymoshenko’s power base is in largely agricultural western Ukraine, where nationalist feeling is strong, suspicion of Russia rife and proximity to the EU palpable, while Yanukovich hails from industrial, mostly Russian- speaking eastern Ukraine, where ties to Moscow endure.

Demonstrations take place every day outside the court where Tymoshenko is on trial, and about 5,000 people marched through Kiev to protest against the case on Independence Day last month, the day after police claimed to have foiled a bomb attack on commemoration events.

While fears that Yanukovich would be a Kremlin puppet have not been borne out – he is now locked in a new gas dispute with Russia – suspicion remains that he, his officials and businessmen backers are far happier dealing with Moscow than Brussels.

Ukrainians have more to worry about than the fate of the wealthy Tymoshenko, however.

The economy is recovering very slowly after shrinking by 15 per cent in 2009, polls show most Ukrainians think life was better back in the Soviet days and few have faith in a political class that has shown less talent for leadership than for feuding and filling its pockets.

Source: Irish Times