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BUDAPEST, Nov 10 2011 (IPS) - The imprisonment of former prime minister Yuliya Timoshenko has raised questions about Ukraine’s democratic credentials. But these questions are mostly being raised abroad.
Timoshenko has been sentenced to seven years in prison and a hefty fine for exceeding her authority in a 2009 gas deal with Russia when she was prime minister.
The verdict has been condemned by the United States, the European Union (EU) and even Russia, whch fears the sentence will be used to revise existing gas arrangements between the two neighbours.
It is the EU that keeps President Viktor Yanukovich worried. Formerly known as a pro-Russian, Yanukovich has been energetically pursuing EU integration by signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU.
EU officials recently cancelled talks with Yanukovich, who still hopes to finalise the deal by December.
“This reaction of the EU is hypocritical because problems with democracy started much earlier here, many social activists, trade unionists, local movements or students were persecuted or killed, and many people sit in jail unjustly and in bad conditions,” Volodymyr Ishchenko, sociologist at the Kiev-based Centre for Society Research told IPS.
“Problems with democracy in Ukraine are much deeper and do not revolve around one person; Timoshenko is just one of the symptoms and not even one of the worst.”
In Kiev’s central street Khreschatyk, opponents and supporters have set up tents in protest ever since the trial began. Numbers have dwindled and currently only some 50 Timoshenko supporters remain on the site, blasting her speeches and distributing leaflets.
“The majority was really indifferent to the trial, except core Timoshenko supporters, of which there are not many left in Ukraine. People don’t show any strong desire to do something in support or against Timoshenko,” adds Ishchenko, who works as protest monitoring director at the centre.
Moreover Timoshenko, nicknamed ‘the gas princess’ for growing immensely rich out of gas deals in the 1990s, might be in for more trouble.
The Secret Service of Ukraine (SBU) has opened another case against her for the embezzlement of 405 million dollars in 1997 and over allegations of involvement in a political assassination.
Timoshenko also faced embezzlement charges and was accused of misuse of Kyoto Protocol funds more recently. Both cases were dropped after her prime ministerial nomination.
It is no surprise that many Ukrainians believe Timoshenko should be in jail. She has lost a great part of her support, with recent polls giving her approval ratings of 10 to 15 percent, down from the 45 percent she obtained in the 2010 presidential race.
A large number of people have welcomed Timoshenko’s conviction, Yevhen Holovakha, a sociologist from the National Academy of Sciences, told the press, adding that people would “perhaps be even more exuberant if all politicians were put inside.”
Sociologists are pointing to the fact that popular indifference to Timoshenko’s fate indicates not necessarily personal animosity, but a complete rejection of Ukraine’s political class from a population that, in its majority, fails to see any substantial difference among political parties.
Holovakha described Ukrainians as increasingly “distrustful of all that is linked to politics, including the government and the opposition,” adding that “too many people believe that a strong hand must put things in order regardless of any consequences.”
In a similar vein, Ishchenko notes “the problem is not why Timoshenko is in jail, but why everyone else is not. In this respect it is unjust. But it doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve it.”
Even some in the pro-Western sector have failed to condemn the verdict. Former president Viktor Yushchenko, an ally and later rival of Timoshenko, told the BBC he did not believe the case was politically motivated.
But the EU certainly does, and its officials have implied that the FTA might be conditional on Timoshenko’s release.
Yanukovich is now weighing his options: on the one hand he is keen to bring Ukraine closer to EU membership, but on the other he is interested in keeping Timoshenko out of the next parliamentary election.
Yanukovich has admitted the verdict was due to outdated legislation which should be modified, but has at the same time insisted he cannot interfere with the judicial branch of the country.
He has also denied any involvement in initiating the case against Timoshenko, in spite of their long-lasting bitter rivalry going back the 2004 elections, rigged in his favour and overturned by the popular Orange Revolution.
“Doubtless, this is a scandalous occurrence that hinders the issue of Ukraine’s European integration,” Yanukovich admitted at a recent meeting with the Slovenian president, according to Ukrainian News Agency UNIAN.
Timoshenko can still appeal the decision and in the meantime Yanukovich might convince his reluctant allies to decriminalise the article under which Timoshenko was condemned.
This is the solution the EU is hoping for. “There is a parallel decriminsalization process under way,” Stefan Fuele, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy told the press. “We still believe that this problem can be solved.”
As a last resort, Yanukovich still has an additional card up his sleeve: he may consider Russia’s insistent offer to join the Customs Union, a move incompatible with the FTA and which would pull Ukraine closer to Moscow’s sphere of influence.
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