Economist: Justice in Ukraine: Democracy on trial
Does this have a get-out-of-jail app?
BRAWLING broke out this week at the trial of Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, when one of her more vocal supporters refused to leave the courtroom in Kiev. Mrs Tymoshenko, who is accused of illegally concluding a gas-price agreement with Russia in 2009, even stood on a bench to film the incident on her mobile phone.
Such farcical scenes have become almost routine in a trial that is being watched closely in Europe and America for signs of selective and politicised justice. Mrs Tymoshenko is no ordinary defendant. She was a leading light in the 2004 “orange revolution”. She has twice served as prime minister. She is now Ukraine’s most prominent opposition politician. Only last year she narrowly lost a tight presidential election to Viktor Yanukovich, a former mechanic who was kept out of power by the orange revolution. Mr Yanukovich has used his first year as president mainly to cement his own power at home, though he has also tried (not always to great effect) to repair Ukraine’s relations with Russia.
Mrs Tymoshenko’s case, which has been heard on and off in a stuffy courtroom in Ukraine’s capital over the past month, offers a lively but disturbing insight into the country. Mr Yanukovich’s government has framed the trial as part of a new anti-corruption drive, insisting that it is not revenge for past political slights. Nor, it claims, is it about torpedoing Mrs Tymoshenko’s chances of competing in a parliamentary election next year or in the presidential vote due in 2015.
Yet Mrs Tymoshenko is not facing charges of straightforward graft. Rather, it seems as if her political record and managerial competence are on trial. Specifically, the allegations centre on her second stint as prime minister, from 2007 to 2010, when she was called on to resolve one of Ukraine’s perennial gas disputes with Russia, from which Ukraine buys most of the energy that it needs to keep its creaking Soviet-era economy going.
According to state prosecutors, Mrs Tymoshenko exceeded her authority by pushing the gas deal through without consulting her own government, committing a cardinal procedural error. To compound her alleged sins, they accuse her of striking a bad bargain for Ukraine, losing the country almost $200m. She is no stranger either to Ukraine’s sharp-elbowed judicial system or to gas: she spent 42 days in jail in 2001 in a standoff with the then president, and in the previous decade she was known as the “gas princess”. Mrs Tymoshenko denies all the charges. Endowed with a flair for the theatrical, she has called the judge a monster and the trial a farce, and merrily flouted court protocol. For his part, the judge has seemed in a hurry, giving her lawyers inadequate time to study thousands of pages of documents.
Mrs Tymoshenko has filed appeal after unsuccessful appeal and changed her legal advisers twice. She has likened the proceedings to a Stalin-era show trial, and accused Mr Yanukovich of trying to turn Ukraine into a Soviet-style prison camp. Although that is hyperbole, it is hard to shake off the impression that her trial is politically motivated. Several of Mrs Tymoshenko’s former ministers have been arrested and jailed. She faces a series of other criminal charges besides the present case.
Indeed, Mr Yanukovich’s credibility and commitment to democracy are in the dock alongside her. If at the end of it, he is seen to have used the judicial system to settle personal political scores, his espousal of democracy will look hollow. As it is, a trial designed to enhance his authority, risks undermining it. Were Mrs Tymoshenko to be jailed (she faces a maximum sentence of ten years), she is likely to emerge as a political martyr. And Mr Yanukovich would be stuck with precisely the label that he has worked so hard to shed: that of a neo-Soviet autocrat.