The Ukos Trial?

It has been noted at several points since his accession to power in January 2010 that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is, from a geopolitical perspective, comfortably Kremlin-oriented, and from a domestic perspective, a zealous devoue of Putin’s authoritarian methods.  An astute editorial in the FT today draws a comparison between the current court case against former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of power, and the Kremlin’s case against Yukos, which has come to represent the archetypal show trial à la Putin.  Since the Tymoshenko trial began at the end of June it has prompted a flurry of complaints about what many view to be politically motivated charges trumped up by a vindictive political rival, the now President.  Here’s the FT’s take:

Mr Yanukovich’s camp insists that the action is part of a broader corruption clampdown, probing 400 as yet unnamed current officials. Yet nearly all of the high-ranking figures charged to date are Tymoshenko associates.

Moreover, while she faces proliferating investigations, the charge on which Ms Tymoshenko is on trial – carrying a potential 10-year sentence – is highly questionable. She is accused of exceeding her authority in agreeing a 2009 gas deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at an excessively high price.

This raises questions over whether policy steps, particularly during a crisis, should be subject to criminal charges. The European Union welcomed the deal in question as it restored Russian gas flows to Ukraine and further west after a shut-off, and removed an opaque intermediary from the Russia-Ukraine gas trade.

Faced with western criticism, Mr Yanukovich’s circle is rumoured to be seeking a face-saving solution – say, a suspended sentence, keeping Ms Tymoshenko out of jail but also out of the next elections. The international community should reject that kind of cynical manoeuvre.

For the EU, in particular, has far greater leverage over Ukraine than over Russia. It is negotiating a free trade and association agreement with Kiev. EU officials seem reluctant to link the talks with Mr Yanukovich’s democratic record for fear of pushing Kiev back into the arms of Russia, which is trying hard to restore its influence over Ukraine. Yet Kiev has made clear it wants and needs the EU deal, calling closer European integration Ukraine’s “strategic choice”.

That gives Brussels power it should use – to suspend talks if the assault on Ms Tymoshenko continues. Trade privileges should be linked to values. And the values displayed in this case fall far short of those demanded by the EU.