20th Mar 2018


Why Tymoshenko will stay in prison

  • Tymoshenko banner in Ukrainian parliliament (Photo: byut.com.ua)

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has no intention of releasing imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Despite mounting international pressure and boycotts of Euro2012 matches in Ukraine by Western politicians, he refuses to yield.

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He is currently piling up new cases against her - alleged tax evasion and involvement in a contract killing in 1996 among others.

The strategy is simple: nullify the effect of any successful appeal to the European Court of Human Rights; wear down international resolve; keep her in prison come what may.

Nothing short of regime change - through the ballot box or revolution - will free her or other opposition leaders jailed on the flimsiest of charges.

That is, unless the international community gets tough with sanctions - something it appears reluctant to do.

Ukraine's beleaguered leader has achieved something unusual: he has united the EU, the US and Russia.

But their unity is a shared condemnation of the seven-year prison sentence handed down last October to his political rival for abuse of office in authorising a costly gas agreement with Russia.

Things are not as bleak as they appear for Yanukovych.

His people control parliament, the judiciary, the security services, the police and most of the media. Supported by oligarchs and family clan members appointed to senior positions, he is playing a canny waiting game.

The EU has delayed the signature of an Association Agreement over the Tymoshenko case.

But hardliner Prime Minister Mykola Azarov recently told reporters that differences with the EU will pass because co-operation on energy and arms is more important.

Deputy prime minister Valeriy Khoroshkovsky hinted to EU leaders that Tymoshenko will be freed but not yet.

It was what Brussels wanted to hear - neither the EU nor the US has an appetite to freeze assets and impose travel restrictions on the 15 individuals identified by the opposition as being the main culprits behind repression.

The mistaken belief is that sanctions will drive Ukraine into the arms of Russia and its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

This is unlikely. To join Moscow's club would result in what Ukrainian oligarchs fear most - interference from Kremlin-sponsored businessmen on their turf. The Yanukovych regime is not bound by ideology but by money.

But the imposition of sanctions on senior members of his clan would be a serious blow.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych also labours under a fallacy.

He believes it would be mad to free his main political opponent ahead of parliamentary elections in October. As one American observer recently said: "Yulia wouldn't even go home to take a shower. She'd go straight to the streets."

In reality, most Ukrainians are disillusioned with the whole generation of current politicians.

They feel let down by the broken promises of the Orange Revolution. At home, Tymoshenko has lost much of her stardust. More people turned out to protest against a pernicious tax code in 2010 than to call for her freedom a year later.

The EU has appointed former European Parliament president Pat Cox and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski to monitor Tymoshenko's appeal.

But without sanctions the next best option to free opposition leaders is for the united opposition to achieve a majority at this October’s parliamentary election.

A vote by MPs to reform the criminal code could free those convicted and restore relations with the EU. But winning the election will prove difficult.

While a united opposition has come together, it has a temporary feel to it and few fresh faces.

To win big at the polls the coalition must reconnect with millions of cynical swing voters. It must present meaningful policies instead of the old mud-slinging and empty slogans.

With the opposition all but excluded from the airwaves, new methods should be employed to engage middle-class voters. The Internet and social media should be weapons of choice.

A fraudulent October election could of course bring people back onto the streets as in 2004. But even here there is no credible alternative to the current regime.

In the meantime, a trouble-free Euro2012 will at least make Yanukovych look like a competent leader on the international stage. Without sanctions, his waiting game might just pay off.

The writer is the head of UK-based PR firm Ridge Consulting, which advised Tymoshenko's political party from 2005 to 2011

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