Ukraine scores own goal for Russia
By M K Bhadrakumar
Along the midriff of Eurasia, an engrossing battle of wits may have begun that
could phenomenally transform the post-Soviet space. Russian Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin's recent call for forming a Eurasian Union now seems more like a
prescient call of the bugle.
The seven-year sentence handed down on Tuesday to Yulia Tymoshenko, the former
prime minister of Ukraine, by the district court in Kiev holds the potential to
become a turning point in post-Soviet politics. Ukraine has always been the
great fault line in Eurasian politics. The "Orange" revolution of 2005 made
that abundantly clear.
How the endgame over the demise of the "Orange" revolution plays out in the
coming months will determine a host of issues, which include Russia's
integration processes in the post-Soviet
space and the surge of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the
territories of the former Soviet Union.
Tymoshenko has been found guilty of misusing her office as prime minister in
negotiating Ukraine's January 2009 gas deal with Russia, causing the country an
estimated loss of US$200 million. Judge Rodion Kireyev said, "In January 2009,
Tymoshenko ... exercising the duties of prime minister ... used her powers for
criminal ends and, acting deliberately, carried out actions ... which led to
The 51-year-old former prime minister has been ordered to pay the damages
caused to the state and debarred from holding public office for three years
after completion of her seven-year prison term.
But Tymoshenko is no push-over. Her trademark is her singular lack of any sense
of moderation and that she never ever settles for a back seat. She has cried
out that the trial is a political vendetta by the regime of President Viktor
Yanukovich, which she promptly compared with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. She
also lost no time shrewdly injecting a heavy dose of geopolitics into her case:
"This is an authoritarian regime that is distancing Ukraine from Europe, while
using European rhetoric."
Her strident words have found resonance in Western capitals. The European
Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted within hours of the Kiev
verdict: "The way the Ukrainian authorities will generally respect universal
values and the rule of law, and specifically how they will handle these cases,
risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship."
Brussels is particularly peeved, feeling somewhat cheated that Yanukovich might
have conveyed a subtle hint that he wouldn't push the envelope against his
political rival to a point of no return and now is claiming his hands are tied
and he cannot interfere with the trial.
But then, Yanukovich is a shrewd politician and he would know that nothing is a
final word in politics. He is still keeping Brussels on tenterhooks by hinting
that an overhaul of the criminal code under which Tymoshenko was put on trial
may be underway. On the other hand, he would also like to know what the EU
could give him in return.
Yanukovich would have sized up that the Tymoshenko issue does not agitate
domestic public opinion. The majority opinion in Ukraine seems to be that the
charges against the iconic figure of the "Orange" revolution are probably
justified. People know she is a billionaire child of the days of "wild
capitalism" in the 1990s when in the debris of the Soviet Union's collapse and
by exploiting the general lawlessness, Ukraine's newly rich made fortunes out
of state property - often enough off Ukraine's import of Russian natural gas.
The apathy of the people toward Tymoshenko's fate underlines the public
awareness that the "Orange" revolution was not a revolution at all, but in
reality a game of musical chairs between Ukrainian millionaires and
billionaires. The West thought it won Ukraine's soul while Moscow's able
ambassador in Kiev, Viktor Chernomyrdin (former Russian prime minister and the
grey cardinal of Russia's energy politics) probably had the last laugh -
Anyway, the loudest demands for Tymoshenko's release have come from the West.
Apart from the EU and Aston, several European capitals have warned Yanukovich.
Interestingly, the White House in Washington chose not to come down too hard on
Yanukovich and instead demanded that the case be reviewed - signaling an exit
door for him.
A poignant irony may appear to be that Moscow joined hands with the West. Which
is indeed a smart move. After all, why should Russia allow itself to be seen as
the permanent antithesis of the rule of law?
Leitmotif of Putin presidency
But, polemics apart, Moscow's stance is actually highly nuanced and it
underscores the struggle for Ukraine's soul that is about to begin. The Russian
Foreign Ministry statement says at the outset that Moscow "respects" Ukraine's
sovereignty and the independence of the judiciary in that country. It implies
that Moscow would accept Yanukovich's contention, if he chooses to do so, that
he cannot undo a court verdict (which the West is demanding).
Secondly, the Russian statement claims that if the "leaders of many states and
the world public" perceive that this has been a politically-motivated trial, it
is because the 2009 gas deal as such was concluded in "strict accordance with
the laws of Russia and Ukraine and the applicable rules of international law".
It then took a step aside and noted that there is an "obvious anti-Russian
subtext in this story", which is what the West's calls to "remove the situation
[of Tymoshenko] from the agreed legal field unilaterally" are all about. Moscow
asserted: "The [Russian-Ukrainian gas] contracts must be fulfilled."
Moscow isn't sure of the road that Yanukovich may ultimately choose - to
withstand or to cave in to Western pleas to release Tymoshenko from custody and
dismiss the case by fiat. (Ideally, Yanukovich would like Tymoshenko to be
mothballed and put away from contesting the 2015 presidential election as his
The bottom line for Moscow is that the 2009 gas deal cannot be reopened and
Ukraine will have to bear the burden of the market price for Russian gas, which
fuels its economy and it cannot do without.
Any price concessions at this point by Moscow would remain linked to Ukraine's
willingness to join the Customs Union with Russia (which also include
Kazakhstan and Belarus). The anger and dismay in the US and Europe stem from
their dilemma that Yanukovich, who although he appears as a newly-minted
democrat, is open to backroom politics, and presenting him with ultimatums may
only drive him toward Russia despite his relations with the Kremlin being cool.
Reacting to the verdict in Kiev, Putin, who is currently on a visit to China,
ostentatiously distanced Moscow from Tymoshenko herself and indirectly
questioned Western motives: "Tymoshenko is not our friend, and for me
personally, she is neither a friend nor a relative. Moreover, she is rather a
political competitor, because she has always been ... a Western-oriented
But Putin warned that it would be "dangerous" and "counter-productive" to
reopen the 2009 gas deal and pointed out that Ukraine and Russia would gain
more by combining their efforts on integration projects.
In reality, he echoed his proposal for creating a Eurasian Union, which he
first mooted in a signed article in Izvestiya merely a week ago. Putin said
Russia-Ukraine integration would be "more beneficial, as they would yield
economic benefits". He then repeated tactfully, "I am not speaking about
The Eurasian Union idea promises to be the leitmotif of the Putin presidency
that may commence in 2012 and may last until 2024. The closing of the door on
Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization in the near term gives impetus
to the idea of expanding the existing Customs Union.
But what would give the Customs Union real traction would be Ukraine's entry.
If that happens, no matter what the rubric is called, an Eurasian Union is
born. The tussle over Tymoshenko's fate goes way past a matter of rule of law
and the legacy of a "color" revolution.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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