KIEV, Ukraine — One year ago, after Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s photogenic former prime minister, lost a close presidential election, many asked if her political career was over.
Tymoshenko struggled to remain relevant in the post-election landscape, as new President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia politico from the country's east, quickly consolidated power and marginalized her.
Now Ukrainian officials have raised the stakes even higher, launching a criminal case against Tymoshenko and her allies. But instead of being beaten even further down, Tymoshenko has come alive. And the international community has taken notice, fearing that this latest assault on the combative blond-braided opposition leader could be an attempt to stifle Ukrainian democracy itself.
According to Ukrainian officials, Tymoshenko's legal difficulties bear no connection to any political agenda: She’s simply been swept up in a wide-reaching anti-corruption drive, they say. Tymoshenko is accused of misusing while she was prime minister some 380 million euros in funds that Ukraine obtained by selling its carbon emission credits — an arrangement established under the Kyoto environmental accords in which countries with lower emission levels can trade with countries who have higher ones.
According to the accords, the money is supposed to be used for environmental projects. Ukrainian officials say that Tymoshenko used it instead to fill gaps in pension payments just before the presidential elections.
Tymoshenko denies the charges and accuses the present government of a witch hunt against her and her allies. A slew of former officials and ministers who served under her have been charged or arrested, including two opposition leaders, Yevhen Korniychuk of the Social and Democratic Party and Yuriy Lutsenko of the People's Self-Defense Party. Some but not all of the criminal cases are related to the alleged misuse of the carbon emission credits.
(Lutsenko, a former interior minister, was seized by security agents as he was walking his dog near his Kiev apartment on Dec. 26. Among the accusations against him is that he conspired with his driver to embezzle some $45,000 in government funds. He is supposed to remain in jail for two months.)
Tymoshenko, who has been barred from leaving Kiev, said: “Look, two leaders of opposition parties in parliament were arrested ahead of the New Year. Is it a coincidence? Lutsenko and Korniychuk [were arrested], and I, representing the third political party, am under house arrest. It's not a coincidence — it's fear and confusion by the authorities.”
United States officials said that they were concerned that the prosecutions might be directed against the opposition — though they stopped short of claiming that this was actually happening. In a statement last week, the U.S. embassy said that, while it did not comment on specific cases, “with few exceptions, the only senior officials being targeted are connected with the previous government, it gives the appearance of selective prosecution of political opponents.”
The embassy also said that it warned the Ukrainian government that “while corruption should be pursued, prosecution should not be selective or politically motivated.”
Many Ukrainians view the government’s anti-corruption campaign with a healthy dose of cynicism. It is commonly accepted here that an overwhelming number of politicians rummage the public till for their own enrichment. Tymoshenko’s government was widely perceived as being no different. But many ask, why single out her group?
The nature of the charges have also raised eyebrows. Paying off pensions — albeit with the wrong funds — is hardly a mortal sin. If the Yanukovych government were truly interested in rooting out corruption, the reasoning goes, it would focus on the millions and perhaps billions that reportedly went directly to officials’ pockets in recent years (not to mention the insider deals that allegedly enriched the country’s oligarchs).
The end game, say some, is to eliminate Tymoshenko as leader of the opposition and main political threat to Yanukovych.
“By banning this politician who received 12 million votes in the presidential election from traveling abroad, the authorities have demonstrated their audacious intentions to permanently destroy the opposition and introduce authoritarian rule,” wrote a group of writers and intellectuals in an open letter to the government.
The strategy may be simply to bring pressure on the former prime minister, to hamstring her politically or prevent her from being a major force in parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for September 2012.
But this may backfire. A number of observers ask, “Will that which politically fails to kill her only make her stronger?”
Jailing or even opening a trial against the fiery Tymoshenko could provide her with a platform and turn her into a martyr. She was already jailed once, for just over a month in 2001, which helped cement her role as the blond populist siren of the 2004 Orange Revolution.
“The actions against Tymoshenko could re-animate her as a Ukrainian leader,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kiev. “In the presidential adminstration, they understand the danger of arresting her — but not everyone understands.”
Indeed, it might have been better to have just left her alone this time. Tymoshenko’s popularity ratings have been sinking steadily. According to the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev, only 10 percent of the population fully supports her, while more than 60 percent don't support her.
According to Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev think tank, the more the government attacks Tymoshenko, the more she becomes the de facto nexus for anyone unhappy with the Yanukovych administration, whether they in fact like her or not.
“People begin to form the opinion that if the government really seems to be afraid of her, then maybe she’s an authentic alternative,” Karasev said.
And as the pressure on her increases, Tymoshenko's importance to Ukrainian democracy as a whole will grow, he added.
“While there's a Tymoshenko, her mere presence is a guarantee against Ukraine following a Belarus or Russian [authoritarian] scenario,” said Karasev.