A Kyiv court has sentenced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in jail for abusing her power in a 2009 gas deal with Russia. The conviction and jail sentence comes just as Ukraine hopes to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Protesters jostled with riot police on the main street of Ukraine's capital as news came that Yulia Tymoshenko had been sentenced to prison and to repay $190 million lost in a gas deal with Russia.
But Tymoshenko, with her trademark blond peasant braid, also has supporters in Brussels, the seat of the European Union. Last week, with Tymoshenko already in jail for two months, European officials warned Ukraine's government that her conviction would threaten a free trade pact with the European Union.
"The European Union has warned [Viktor] Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, that his attempts to finalize a free trade agreement with the bloc would be put in jeopardy if the case went forward, and [it] ended in a sentence for Yulia Tymoshenko," said Yevgeny Kiselyov who runs a political talk show in Kyiv.
Sweden's Prime Minister Carl Bildt warned recently, as the trial ground through its third month, that "political show trials have no place in our Europe." On Tuesday, after the court decision, Catherine Ashton, the EU's top foreign affairs official, said from Brussels that the EU is "deeply disappointed" with the verdict.
The verdict comes as Ukraine, the largest nation to emerge from the Soviet Union after Russia, stands poised between Russia and Europe.
After four years of negotiations, Ukraine hopes to sign a free trade agreement with the EU in December. This is to be a first step toward Ukraine eventually joining the EU. But with many Europeans saying the EU has expanded too far, too fast, the trial of Tymoshenko is now a lightning rod for opponents of further eastward expansion.
At the same time, Russia is offering membership in a Kremlin-dominated customs union and deep discounts on gas prices, with no lectures on democracy.
With President Yanokovych scheduled to meet with EU officials in Brussels in 10 days, analysts say fast political footwork will be needed to preserve Ukraine's European option.
Viktor Chumak, director of the Ukrainian Public Policy Institute in Kyiv, says now that President Yanukovych has seen his main political rival humiliated by a court trial and conviction, his supporters in Ukraine's parliament will quickly pass a law to change the penalties under the abuse-of-power statute she was convicted of violating. Violators would no longer serve time in jail and would no longer be barred from running for political office.
Shortly after the verdict was announced President Yanukovych unexpectedly broke his long silence on the Tymoshenko case. Talking to journalists Tuesday, he lamented that it was "a regrettable case, which today is thwarting Ukraine's European integration."
He went on to stress that his government is working to update Ukraine's criminal code. But his supporters will have to move fast. The next session of parliament is October 18, and the president is expected in Brussels on October 20.
Kiselyov, the political analyst, says the government's control of the parliament makes that timetable possible.
"They can always vote the same day and the president can sign the respective legislation on the next day or on the same day," noted Kiselyov.
Some European officials have said Ukraine's leader will not be welcome in Brussels if Tymoshenko is still in jail when he visits.
Tymoshenko believes that the European card is her best one to play. Before the verdict, she announced plans to appeal her conviction to the European Court of Human Rights. As soon as the verdict was announced, a parliamentary supporter flatly announced that Ukraine's trade pact with Europe is now dead.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, some analysts say the verdict closes Ukraine's door to Europe and opens its door to Russia.
But Russia's foreign ministry was more cautious Tuesday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich denounced what he called "an obvious anti-Russian underlying message to this whole story."
The Kremlin fears Ukraine's president will try to use the court case to break the gas agreement.
In Kyiv, Victor Chumak said Russian officials were right to be cautious. Faced with the choice between Russia and Europe, Chumak estimated that the odds are 60-40 in favor of Ukraine successfully taking the European road.
The coming weeks may decide the East-West tug of war over Ukraine - perhaps the biggest prize from the old Soviet Union.