IT WOULD have been out of character for Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s thuggish and vindictive president, to let his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, simply walk free after her four-month trial. Since she was taken into custody in August it had been clear that the chances of her acquittal were slim, according to The Economist.
So it was no surprise that a court in Kiev today sentenced Ms Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for signing a disadvantageous gas contract with Russia in 2009 (when she was prime minister), banned her from holding public office for three years and fined her $190m.
The decision was made despite (or perhaps because of) the enormous pressure put on Mr Yanukovich by European and American politicians, who made it clear that a prison sentence for Ms Tymoshenko would put an end to Ukraine’s aspirations to get closer to the European Union. In particular they hinted that it would jeopardise Ukraine`s ambitions to sign a free-trade and association agreement with the EU later this year.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s outspoken foreign minister, tweeted today: "We have reacted strongly against the…sentence against Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine. This will endanger the entire relationship." Russia, too, reacted strongly, describing the verdict as "anti-Russian" because it related to gas agreements counter-signed by Vladimir Putin, then Ms Tymoshenko`s counterpart.
However, it would have been out of character for Ukraine had today`s verdict been unambiguously clear. Following the ruling Mr Yanukovich told journalists: “Today the court took its decision in the framework of the current criminal code. This is not the final decision… There is the court of appeal ahead, and what decision it will take, and under which legislation, has great importance.”
In Ukraine, nothing is fixed and today`s verdict may turn out to be just another chapter in this long saga. Last week Mr Yanukovich submitted a draft of a new criminal code to the Rada (parliament) that would soften punishment for economic crimes, though without reference to the articles used to convict Ms Tymoshenko, which date back to Soviet times. The opposition will now propose amendments that will specifically de-criminalise those articles.
If these amendments are supported by Mr Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, the new criminal code will be applied retrospectively, allowing Ms Tymoshenko to walk free. This would allow Mr Yanukovich to save face while satisfying Western demands to let Ms Tymoshenko out (and run in the next presidential election).
The amendments are likely to be discussed by the Rada next week. The timing is crucial. On October 18th, Mr Yanukovich will host Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s outgoing president and future prime minister, in Donetsk. Two days later Mr Yanukovich is due in Brussels—although following today`s verdict EU officials warned that the visit could be cancelled.
Mr Yanukovich put himself into a deep hole when he sanctioned Ms Tymoshenko’s arrest. It would be rational for him to try to climb out of it by freeing her. But rational behaviour is never assured in Ukranian politics.