KIEV, Ukraine — Outside, opposing camps faced off across a barricade, towers of speakers arrayed behind them, each blasting music at ear-splitting volumes in an attempt to drown each other out. Inside, the scene was no less tumultuous, as the accused openly mocked the presiding judge, and fights broke out in the court benches behind her.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy trial of Yulia Tymoshenko — Ukraine’s former prime minister, current opposition head, Orange Revolution starlet and, possibly, soon-to-be political martyr.
Tymoshenko refuses to rise for Judge Rodion Kireyev, saying that she will pay him respect when he earns it. Other times she calls him — to his face — a government stooge. When she is not publically attacking him, she tweets insults, like the following:
“Clearly, Kireyev is not in charge and somewhere deep down in his soul he may be innocent. Bedbugs, for instance, are also innocent. They need food and a career.”
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Outside on the street, her vocal and well-organized supporters, dressed in Yulia Tymoshenko hats, t-shirts and headbands, conduct a constant vigil. Their camp is festooned with white banners and black lettering, with statements like, “Freedom to political prisoners!” and “Yanukovych do not judge, lest you too be judged” (referring to Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych).
The anti-Tymoshenko crowd is no less enthusiastic — or well-supplied. Their banners, in contrast, are black with white lettering and say things like, “We do not believe U” (a play on the first letter of her name).
But even if the trial sometimes exhibits a circus atmosphere, the case against Tymoshenko is nothing to joke about. She stands accused of abuse of power while she was prime minister and if convicted could face seven to 10 years in jail.
The charges stem from a 2009 deal with Russia that ended a bitter dispute over the price Ukraine pays the Kremlin for gas. Prime Minister Tymoshenko dramatically flew to Moscow to hammer out a deal with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, after Russia had cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine and large portions of Europe.
Now officials say that she broke the law by not consulting her government when signing the deal. What’s more, they add, the new gas price was artificially high and cost Ukraine an unnecessary $200 million.
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Tymoshenko maintains that she is the target of a Stalinesque show trial. She says that President Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated her in elections last year, is trying to remove her as a political threat. Even if the judge delivers a reduced sentence — finding her guilty but suspending her prison sentence, for example — she will be unable to run for office for the foreseeable future.
Ukrainian government officials say that there are no political machinations. Tymoshenko has been swept up in an anti-corruption house cleaning. The wheels of justice have been set in motion, they say, and Judge Kireyev will reach his own decision free of any government interference.
But Western governments have issued public statements expressing strong concern that the case could indeed be politically motivated. In private, diplomats go much further. Most seem convinced that the true endgame is to punish Tymoshenko, given that the charges against her do not accuse her of outright corruption, and the overwhelming majority of those also facing trial are from her political circle. The only question seems to be how far her sentence will go.
In a recent editorial, the Financial Times called the Tymoshenko trial “Ukraine’s Yukos moment” — a reference to the multi-year conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head at one point of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, as payback for challenging the authority of Putin.
(Volodymyr Khandogiy, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, wrote a rebuttal letter, in which he reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to democratic values. “Ms Tymoshenko has spoken freely to media and to her supporters,” he said. “She is not and has never been placed under arrest.”)
Ultimately, Ukraine’s fledgling democracy is under threat. The Tymoshenko trial is the latest, and most prominent, example of what by all appearances is an inexorable slide to a more authoritarian system of rule. Further afield, many observers are dreading what could be a dirty and corrupt parliamentary election a year from this October.
One area that will not be affected, however, is Ukraine’s path toward an association agreement with the European Union. Ukraine is currently negotiating an arrangement with the EU that would be one step short of full membership, and EU officials seem set on locking Ukraine into the bloc's political architecture.
The situation leads to a paradox: One year from now, Ukraine could be both more authoritarian, and at the same time closer to the European Union. The possibility gives some Western diplomats pause.
“The situation is just like the preparations for Euro 2012,” said one Western official, off-the-record, in reference to the beautification projects currently under way in preparation for the European soccer championships that will take place in Ukraine next summer.
“All the facades are being painted, but underneath the buildings are just as rotten.”
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