This week Europe’s politicians have had the chance to put aside, if only briefly, their economic fears and join in a chorus of condemnation of Ukraine, where former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced on Tuesday to seven years’ jail for her approval of a controversial gas deal with Russia in 2009.

Consensus is that this was a blatantly political verdict, and that while Tymoshenko may have been guilty of poor judgment, there was nothing that in ordinary circumstances would be considered criminal. If her sentence is allowed to stand, there is no doubt that relations between Ukraine and the West will be significantly harmed, setting back Ukraine’s ambitions for deeper integration with (and ultimately membership of) the EU.

Background first: Tymoshenko came to prominence as a leader of the “Orange revolution” of 2004, which resulted in the annulling of disputed presidential elections and the subsequent victory of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko appointed Tymoshenko as prime minister, but their relationship soon fell apart and the pro-Russian forces of Viktor Yanukovych were able to make a comeback.

Early last year Yushchenko, running for re-election, could only manage fifth place, and narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the runoff, 51.8% to 48.2%.

But efforts to read this as a simple morality play quickly break down.

Despite his support in the Russified east and south of the country, Yanukovych has pursued closer ties with the West since his election, while Tymoshenko, supposedly the pro-Western candidate, had run on a platform of improved relations with Russia and has now been convicted of unduly favouring Russian interests.

Not surprisingly, Russia has also condemned the verdict against her, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin describing it as “dangerous and counterproductive”. In a country deeply divided between Russia and the west, Yanukovych seems to have hit on a way of simultaneously outraging both.

It looks to me as if Yanukovych was simultaneously trying to do two things: first, to destroy his main political rival, and secondly, to send an unmistakable signal that he was not a Russian puppet. From the West’s point of view, the second is laudable but the first is an unacceptable use of the judicial process. (From Russia’s point of view it’s the other way around.)

What he now needs to do is find a way of undoing the damage that has been done without actually giving up on those two objectives. From his statements since the verdict, it would appear that Yanukovych is trying to do just that. Referring to further legal proceedings, he said that “Ahead lies the appeals court, and it will without a doubt make a decision within the bounds of the law, but the decision will have great significance”.

It has been suggested that the charges against Tymoshenko could be downgraded from criminal to administrative, freeing her from jail and allowing her to run in parliamentary elections scheduled for October next year. Her credibility would still have been undermined, but Yanukovych could hope to at least soften western reproaches about political persecution.

The task for any Ukrainian politician is to try to overcome the country’s deep geographical division and reach out to voters beyond their own power base. Yanukovych’s calculation seems to be that he is safe enough in the Russian-speaking regions to be able to afford causing some angst in Moscow; what he really needs is better relations with the West, in the hope that will allay the suspicions of western Ukraine.

But putting a losing presidential candidate in jail is clearly not the way to win friends in the EU.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey