Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tymoshenko: From Prime Minister To Political Prisoner

Even though she is out of office, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko continues to dominate the political life of Ukraine.

The past few years have seen a true reversal of fortune for Tymoshenko.  In 2004, she was one of the two heroes of the Orange Revolution, along with the eventual president Viktor Yushchenko; but infighting between her faction and supporters of Yushchenko would paralyze Ukraine's government, helping to stifle the national economy and eventually lead to the re-election of former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose ham-handed attempts at vote-rigging in 2004 sparked the Orange Revolution in the first place.

Tymoshenko was set to lead a opposition faction in Ukraine's parliament, but was jailed first on charges that as Prime Minister she illegally diverted funds from a government greenhouse gas emissions reduction program.  Tymoshenko now also faces charges of tax evasion dating back to the 1990s, when she amassed a personal fortune operating a natural gas pipeline network in Ukraine (a position that earned her the unfortunate nickname of “the gas princess”).  The charges seem eerily similar to those leveled against Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the oil conglomerate Yukos, in 2003.  And just as critics have said that the charges made against  Khodorkovsky were political payback from his rival Vladimir Putin, the charges against Tymoshenko are widely seen as a move by Yanukovich to keep her out of Ukrainian politics.

But the Tymoshenko case is starting to spin wildly out of control.  Tymoshenko began complaining that her jailers were not treating long-standing medical problems she has with her back, a condition that was causing her near-constant pain.  Tymoshenko began a hunger strike to protest both her arrest and the conditions of her imprisonment.  Now, photos have surfaced of Tymoshenko with visible brusies on her arms that she claims are the result of rough treatment by her jailers.  Tymoshenko's daughter Evgenia said at a press conference earlier this week that her mother's condition is worsening due to the back problem, abuse and hunger strike.

The Tymoshenko issue is turning into a major international embarrassment for Ukraine.  Several European leaders have pulled out of a summit meeting planned for later in May in Yalta, Ukraine in protest.  Leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel are also suggesting that they will stay away from UEFA's Euro 2012 soccer tournament this summer if the Tymoshenko situation is not resolved.  Co-hosting the Euro 2012 tournament (along with Poland) is a major accomplishment for Ukraine in their post-Soviet history, a boycott by European heads-of-state would be a stinging rebuke to Yanukovich's government.  To make matters even a little worse, the city of Dnipropetrovsk, which is scheduled to host some of the Euro 2012 games, was rocked by a series of explosions caused by bombs dumped in trash bins around the city.  Thirty people were injured in the blasts.  UEFA has issued a statement of official concern to Ukraine over the blasts, which are being treated as terrorism, though no group has yet stepped forward to claim responsibility.

Meanwhile, the Tymoshenko situation will hang over Ukraine's relations with the rest of Europe.  She may no longer be prime minister, but Yulia Tymoshenko continues to drive Ukrainian politics.
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