The jailing this week of the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Timoshenko, was the latest chapter in the tumultuous saga that is Ukrainian politics – a tale that is as colourfully entertaining for outsiders as it is painful for the Ukrainian people who have to live through their politicians’ antics.
Timoshenko was imprisoned for contempt of court during a trial on a charge of abuse of power. The charge relates to her previous term as Prime Minister and signature in 2009 of a deal that ended the blockage of gas supplies from Russia to European consumers via Ukraine. In a rare example of unanimity on Ukrainian matters, the US and EU have condemned the case as “selective justice” and Russia has said that the deal broke no Russian or international laws. Many observers suspect that the real motivation behind the case is to disqualify Timoshenko from standing as a candidate in future elections by saddling her with a criminal record.
As Timoshenko has volubly pointed out, her involvement in the deal that ended the gas supply dispute was conducted in the full glare of publicity and does not seem out of step with the post of Prime Minister. The dispute was more a matter of international politics than commerce, involving state-owned companies and debts between the countries concerned.
But although this case may be dubious, this is not to say that any investigation of Timoshenko’s alleged links to corruption or political malpractice would be entirely unwarranted. For example, the details of her initial rapid rise from video kiosk owner to senior gas industry mover and shaker in the early 1990s are still unclear. In part, this seems to have been helped by a friendship with another former Prime Minister, Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko is famous in Ukrainian political folklore for skipping the country to avoid corruption charges and subsequently attempting to buy Eddie Murphy’s house in Los Angeles for cash.
Timoshenko’s next transition from “gas princess” to political queen came via her joint leadership of the 2004 Orange Revolution with Victor Yushchenko. The duo later fell out spectacularly whilst in government as President and Prime Minister but, while it lasted, their political partnership launched a thousand beauty and the beast headlines. Whilst Timoshenko is a contender for the title of Europe’s most glamorous politician, Yushchenko (himself formerly a strong-jawed looker) was hideously disfigured by a mysterious dioxin poisoning during the election campaign that sparked the Orange Revolution.
But, as she has shown by refusing to recognise the court’s authority and bringing her supporters back onto the streets, Yulia is a vicious fighter beneath her fragrant exterior and will not be defeated easily.
He attributed his poisoning to a murder attempt during the soup course at a dinner with the then Head of the Ukrainian Security Service, which he believed was instigated by his Russia-backed political opponents in the camp of the outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. The failure of this attempt to knock Yushchenko out of the campaign meant team Kuchma then had to move on to Plan B by rigging the vote count of the election. Unfortunately for them, large swathes of the Ukrainian people refused to accept the theft of their votes and stayed out on the freezing streets for weeks in the successful protest that became known as the Orange Revolution.
The people’s determination to reject Kuchma’s preferred successor also owed something to the former president’s credibility as a dedicated public servant having already been tarnished by a multitude of corruption scandals and the emergence of tapes secretly recorded in his office. These tapes featured him apparently ordering the murder of an investigate journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was found in the woods outside Kiev. An attempt to prosecute this case some years later under the Yushchenko/Timoshenko government foundered when the chief witness, the former Interior Minister and Kuchma’s conversation partner on the tapes, Yuri Kravchenko committed “suicide” by shooting himself several times in the head.
All of which brings us neatly back to Timoshenko on trial, as her alleged present day persecutor, is none other Viktor Yanukovych, the chosen successor of Kuchma who was foiled by the orange revolution. Despite his failure in 2004, Yanukovych managed to sneak back into the presidency in 2010 by defeating Timoshenko in a presidential election where the “orange” electorate was split by competing candidates and demoralised by a government that featured far more infighting than competent administration.
Yanukovych’s victory completed a remarkable comeback for a man dismissed as a joke figure just a few years ago. This unfortunate status was based on Yanukovych being seen as the malleable frontman for some of Ukraine’s shady oligarchs and possessing the demeanour, youthful assault convictions and sparkling oratorical skills of a nightclub bouncer. Although he is now showing more signs, as president, of independent thought than expected from someone previously portrayed as a stooge, his thuggish image endures and his new found initiative shows worrying signs of being focused on reigning in democracy and securing his grip on power. Hence, according to Yanukovych’s critics, the attempt to knock Timoshenko out of political contention by means of a spurious criminal case. But, as she has shown by refusing to recognise the court’s authority and bringing her supporters back onto the streets, Yulia is a vicious fighter beneath her fragrant exterior and will not be defeated easily.
And so the saga continues and Ukraine’s unfortunate people continue to be condemned to live in interesting times.
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