News / Europe

Tymoshenko Trial is Test of Democracy in Ukraine

Ludmila Aleksandrovna, 62, a Yulia Tymoshenko supporter protests in Kyiv, August 15, 2011
Ludmila Aleksandrovna, 62, a Yulia Tymoshenko supporter protests in Kyiv, August 15, 2011

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James Brooke

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a grudge match between two political giants is testing democracy in Ukraine, the second most populous country to emerge from the Soviet Union, after Russia.

In a sidewalk camp outside a Kyiv courthouse, photos of Yulia Tymoshenko are everywhere.  But the former prime minister, with her trademark golden braids, is out of sight.

The closest her supporters get is in the evenings, when she is whisked back to her prison cell in a windowless gray police van.

One year after narrowly losing Ukraine's presidential elections, Tymoshenko is on trial, accused of abusing her powers when she signed a gas deal with Russia in her role as prime minister.

Outside the courtroom, is her chief of staff, Mykhaylo Livinsky.  He says democracy is on trial.  He says the losers of the Orange Revolution are now putting the winners on trial.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at a court hearing in Kyiv, Aug 11, 2011
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at a court hearing in Kyiv, Aug 11, 2011

Back in 2004, Tymoshenko helped lead the Orange Revolution that annulled the fraudulent election of Viktor Yanukovych.  But last year, Yanukovych beat Tymoshenko in elections widely seen as fair.

Now, her supporters see the trial as political payback that threatens democracy.

Olga Mola, 30, a school teacher, is camping on a downtown sidewalk, protesting the trial of her political heroine.  She says that a guilty verdict would mean that Ukraine is a lawless nation.

But Ludmila Soloviova and other supporters of President Yanukovych say the fight against corruption has to start somewhere.  She says it is not logical that a politician suspected of corruption cannot be put on trial simply because she is popular.

Ukraine Foreign Ministry Spokesman Oleg Voloshyn is getting used to combating criticism coming from capitals as diverse as Washington and Moscow.

"We are asked not to prosecute her just because she is an opposition leader?  She is not Nelson Mandela.  She is not Mahatma Ghandi.  She is not Martin Luther King.  She is nothing like that.  She is suspected to be guilty of high treason of Ukrainian national interest," said Voloshyn.

Voloshyn says Ukraine's president does not control the nation's courts.

But Institute of World Policy Director Alyona Getmanchuk says Ukrainians sympathize with underdogs.  She says the trial is rehabilitating Tymoshenko, after her poor performance as prime minister.

She says Ukrainians and foreigners see this as a political case, not a criminal case.  Like many analysts, Getmanchuk sees the trial as the latest chapter in a long-running grudge match between the nation's two most powerful politicians.

Getmanchuk adds thats the president's effort to get rid of his main political rival may backfire.  Time in jail may boost Tymoshenko's popularity.

But a conviction, even followed by a suspended sentence, would render Tymoshenko ineligible to run for office in next year's parliamentary elections or the 2015 presidential election.

Yuli Weeks' slideshow:

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