24th Oct 2020


Tymoshenko trial: Gas, lies and stereotypes

  • Squashed oranges: Tymoshenko co-led the Orange Revolution in 2004 and is hoping to stage a comeback (Photo: mattlemmon)

The detention of former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on 5 August remains big news both at home and abroad, with a final verdict expected in the coming days. Updates from the Pechersky court room, where the case is being judged, are as regular as weather forecasts.

The international community, without any real scrutiny of the prosecutor's argument, has loudly complained that the trial is politically motivated. For their part, Ukrainians find it hard to understand the details of the case, while most foreign diplomats and media do not even try.

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Some in the West fear that Ukraine will revert to post-Soviet authoritarianism. Others fear it will become too successful and join the European Union - the allegedly 'political' case against Tymoshenko presents an opportunity to torpedo its European aspirations.

The ruling regime has done a lousy job of communicating his side of the story both inside the country and abroad. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko's foreign PR machine runs like clockwork in informing: accurate, non-stop.

The trial could either end her political career or launch a major comeback.

She was first arrested in 1995 on currency smuggling charges while co-head of the Ukrainian Gas Korporation, which later transformed itself into the powerful business lobby, the Common Energy System of Ukraine. She was arrested again in 2001, while deputy-PM, on charges of bribing ex-PM Pavel Lazarenko, who is currently in jail in the US on a money laundering conviction. She spent 42 days in pre-trial detention.

Bookies back then would have given very long odds on Tymoshenko going back to cell 242, the same one as in 2001. Never say never. It has happened and it has happened again over Russian gas.

Not even the best investigative journalists in Ukraine know what really happened in Tymoshenko's 2009 gas deal with Russia.

On 19 January she, as prime minister, signed a "directive" authorising a new contract between Ukraine's Naftogaz and Russia's Gazprom. On the basis of this directive, she later obliged Naftogaz chief Oleg Dubyna to sign the contract. The deal set a final price of $450 per thousand cubic metres for Ukraine, obliged Ukraine to take a set volume of gas each month or pay for the set volume even if it did not need the full amount. But it did not oblige Gazprom to transit a set volume through Ukraine's pipelines to the EU.

The terms are potentially disastrous for both Naftogaz and the Ukrainian economy.

The court hearings have shown that Tymoshenko did not have the right to sign the "directive" and to force Dubyna to sign the contract.

For any such directive to be legally valid, it has to be approved by all the members of the government, not just the PM. What Tymoshenko did in plain words is falsify a very important document.

In one of the recent court hearings she asked: "I presented my instruction, which was entitled a 'directive'. If someone thinks such directives should be called by other words, does this mean I should be sent to prison for seven or 10 years?" It is a bit like asking: "If I paid with a fake banknote that I made myself, should this be called counterfeiting?" Yes, it should.

The court also learned that Tymoshenko threatened Dubyna with dismissal if he did not go along with the deal. "I want to let it be known once again, the directives [instructions] I signed on 19 January 2009 were obligatory for all the officials of Naftogaz. Otherwise they would have been fired," Tymoshenko said. According to our law, the prime minister does not have the power to dismiss the head of Naftogaz.

Her defence is a shambles and her only hope of getting off is foreign pressure on Kiev.

The West was shocked when the judge last month ordered her detention for contempt of court ( I wonder if there is any judge in the world that would have tolerated her offensive behaviour). Outside powers fired off well-prepared demarches - first Moscow, then Washington, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, London, Madrid and Warsaw.

I understand Old Europe's reaction - they always saw Ukraine as a mess. New Europe is equally cynical about Kiev despite its sympathy for the Orange Revolution crew. But Moscow? Excuse me Moscow, but what about your mangling of oil-tycoon-turned-liberal-reformist Mikhail Khodorkovsky? What about Sergei Magnitsky, where the US imposed travel sanctions on 60 Russian officials said to have murdered him in jail? Just two examples of Russian nihilism which makes a mockery of its intervention in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has clearly shown how much they like the 2009 gas deal. And here's the nub of it - if Tymoshenko is found guilty, Ukraine has a basis for revising the contract and Europe has a potential new gas war on its hands.

I believe that too many people in Russia and in certain EU countries have an interest in keeping Ukraine weak and unstable, in maintaining the status quo. Otherwise the whole affair just does not add up. Why don't they complain about the scores of other prosecutions of ex-politicians in Ukraine? Why is Tymoshenko so special?

Former leaders in the West are not immune from the law. Dominique Strauss-Kahn? French ex-president Jacques Chirac? In March 2011 Chirac also went on trial on charges of corruption. Even his advanced age - 78 - was not an obstacle. The now foreign minister of France and another ex-French-PM, Alain Juppe, in 2004 got an 18 month suspended sentence for abuse of public funds.

In the West this is a good thing: 'No one is above the law.' So why is Ukraine being denied this opportunity to break its old ways of total unaccountability for abuse of power?

Ilona Iarmoliuk is a freelance journalist in Ukraine


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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