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Analysis & Opinion
09.08.11 Yulia The Martyr
By Andrew Roth

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who rose to prominence on the tide of the “Orange Revolution,” is once again seeing her star rise. Although voted out of office in 2010, she is now amassing domestic and international support as she battles accusations that she illegally forced through a gas deal with Russia in 2009. Yet despite seizing the opportunity to mount a political comeback by reviving her image as a populist politician and political martyr, the support she is receiving may have more to do with general distrust of the Viktor Yanukovich regime, both internally and among leading players on the international gas market.

The case against Tymoshenko centers around a 2009 natural gas contract signed between Russia and Ukraine, which more than doubled the rates that Ukraine paid for gas, bringing them close to $450 per 1,000 cubic meters. Despite Tymoshenko’s ouster in the 2010 elections, the new President Viktor Yanukovich did not renegotiate permanent terms on the purchase of Russian gas, although he did sign a deal for a temporary 30 percent discount on gas deliveries in exchange for extending the lease on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimea.

Earlier this year, however, the original deal came back in the spotlight, when Tymoshenko was accused of forcing the head of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state gas champion, to sign the controversial deal. Brought to court, she was arrested last Friday for contempt, following theatrical opposition to the trial and the presiding judge. Support, both domestic and international, was quickly forthcoming. Local opposition politicians, along with Tymoshenko, have called the court case an act of political revenge by Yanukovich, noting that it was only one in a series of arrests against the opposition, including former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko. Internationally, Tymoshenko’s arrest has aligned the United States and the European Union with their usual sparring partner Russia, as all three have released public statements protesting Tymoshenko’s arrest as politically motivated.

Despite internal criticism of the case and limited rallies supporting Tymoshenko, however, both opposition leaders and protestors on the street have been keeping their distance from the former prime minister, said Volodymir Fesenko, the head of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kiev. “The thing is that they don’t trust the majority of politicians, and Tymoshenko is one of the least trusted. In response to the question, they say ‘We are not allies of Tymoshenko. We are supporters of free elections’,” he said, adding: “Many people see this as ‘not our’ war. They see this as a war between political clans.”

Given a platform, Tymoshenko has attempted to use the case to revive her support base and revive her credentials as a populist national politician. Reports on the hearings have been replete with Tymoshenko’s usual flair, from stark refusals to stand before the judge to stoic public statements, as when she told Ukrainians that “this is a test, but it is also the mission of my life, to help Ukraine become a true European state,” reported AFP.

That message is reverberating and the case could spin out of control for the Yanukovich regime, noted Nikolai Petrov, an analyst for the Carnegie Moscow Center, but her appeals are finding more support on the international level than on the local one. “What we’re seeing here is a bargaining process between Yanukovich and any possible political opposition in the country, where he’s trying to threaten her ability to be a factor in any of the upcoming elections,” said Petrov. “Yet what we’re seeing is that while on the domestic level, not too many people are marching or protesting the court case thus far, international support has been widespread.”

The strange circumstances leading to Russia and the West seeing eye-to-eye on the Tymoshenko case are rooted just as much in the fate of Tymoshenko’s disputed gas deal as in questions of political repression, said Fesenko. “Yanukovich’s motives here are also focused on annulling the contract by means of the court case [against Tymoshenko],” Fesenko noted, adding that: “It’s hardly a surprise that Russia is interested in speaking out against the arrest. They want to preserve the deal, which, to be fair, was advantageous to them and disadvantageous to Ukraine.” Yanukovich, too, has increasingly been seen as a less reliable ally for Moscow as of late, recently resisting regional initiatives like a Russia-led Customs Union and earning little goodwill from Moscow.

Similar doubt has touched on the European Union’s motives for supporting Tymoshenko, when a new gas crisis between the Ukraine and Russia could cut off energy deliveries to Western Europe as well. Having Tymoshenko free gives the European Union a “tool of manipulation over Yanukovich in any economic negotiations with him, including gas,” wrote political commentator Stanislav Kucher in Kommersant.

The coincidental and possibly ephemeral nature of support for Tymoshenko may ultimately mean that a new political life for the ex-prime minister, or her transformation into a Ukrainian Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as some are suggesting, are unlikely. Far more likely, said Fesenko, is that the case will further erode support for Yanukovich. “If she is freed, and that we don’t know, we may see her popularity jump a bit, but increasingly we may just see growing apathy and dissatisfaction in Ukrainian politics,” he said. “For Yanukovich, however, while I am sure he expected criticism over the arrest, the attention is most likely far exceeding what was expected.”
The source
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