Ukraine’s leader took a step in the right direction Thursday by announcing that he supports scrapping the Soviet-era law that led to a seven-year prison sentence for his chief political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Early in the day, there were indications that President Viktor Yanukovych’s conciliatory words would be rapidly followed by Tymoshenko’s release, along with the restoration of her right to participate in parliamentary elections next year. The U.S. and the European Union, while they have sharply condemned her trial and sentence as trumped-up and politically motivated, have indicated that such an outcome would restore reasonably warm relations with Ukraine.
Yet Western nations should resist the temptation to simply wipe Ukraine’s slate clean, even though there are some very compelling incentives to do so. Not least of these is the need to keep Ukraine from falling deeper into the gravitational pull of its former overlord: Russia.
Tymoshenko’s trial and imprisonment have imperiled one of the principal bulwarks against Russian influence by threatening a wide-ranging free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU that was to be signed in December. The EU rightly sees greater commercial and political engagement as a way to ensure that Ukraine renews its commitment to democracy.
Russia, meanwhile, is pressuring Yanukovych to turn eastward and join a common trade area that would also include Belarus and Kazakhstan, both of which were part of the Soviet Union. In exchange, officials in Moscow have dangled the possibility of lowering the price of Russian natural gas, which the Ukrainian economy depends on. (Ironically, Tymoshenko’s trial stemmed from her decision as prime minister to sign a deal locking in high Russian prices.)
It is understandable, then, that the EU and the U.S. would welcome any effort by the government in Kiev to quickly resolve the Tymoshenko affair, so they could resume their focus on the much bigger geopolitical issues at stake.
But this would be a mistake. Rather, the EU and U.S. should secure commitments from Yanukovych that go well beyond Tymoshenko’s freedom. As a condition of the trade pact, Western countries should also require evidence that his government will reverse its steady undermining of the democratic gains of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Abuses have included the curbing of press and civil liberties, dubious elections and the use of courts to neutralize political opponents.
In any case, that conversation may never take place. Only hours after Yanukovych voiced his encouraging support for a change in the law, the country’s security service announced it had opened a separate criminal investigation into allegations that Tymoshenko transferred $405 million of debt from a company she ran in the late 1990s to the state budget. That offense, which an ally of Tymoshenko said was “absolutely absurd and falsified,” is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.
It’s news that no doubt brought smiles at the Kremlin, and a reminder to the West of how much Ukraine has disappointed since the promise of the Orange Revolution.
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