The prospect of releasing Yulia Tymoshenko seemed unreal even recently, especially in light of the new and increasingly serious criminal charges being filed against her and the mounting of a large-scale campaign to discredit her. However, Viktor Yanukovych and his closest circle changed their minds after realizing that the act of signing an Association Agreement with the EU (rather than the content of the document) would benefit them from the viewpoint of their vested interests. The Europeans proved to be unyielding on “the Tymoshenko issue”—her release and several other conditions are prerequisites for signing the Agreement. Therefore, the Presidential Administration and Yanukovych’s “Family” decided to opt for a compromise. Evidently, the Ukrainian authorities also want to obtain the agreement without much trouble: allowing Tymoshenko to receive treatment is simpler than carrying out systemic democratic transformations in the country. Moreover, the Yanukovych regime is in no way interested in doing this from its own corporate standpoint. At the same time, the Presidential Administration already seems to be working to ensure that Tymoshenko has no chance of making a serious impact on Ukrainian politics from abroad or enjoying a comeback.
In any case, the West seems to deserve most of the credit for finally getting the case for Tymoshenko’s release off the ground. Domestic pressure placed on the authorities (blocking the platform of the Verkhovna Rada and protest rallies near the Kachanivska Penal Colony) was more comical than effective, which opposition members themselves have admitted in private conversations.
However, Tymoshenko’s release to Germany for medical treatment is a long and arduous process—and nothing else is being discussed so far. First, a complicated and unprecedented mechanism needs to be developed to transport an imprisoned Ukrainian national abroad and establish her legal status. Second, Kyiv wants to obtain certain political guarantees from Germany, such as Tymoshenko’s abstinence from political life and limited right to free travel and communication with her fellow opposition members. Incidentally, the foreign mass media recently reported that one of the “cynical demands” set by the Ukrainian authorities in negotiations on Tymoshenko’s release is that she must pay compensation for “damage inflicted on the state by gas contracts with Russia” to the tune of UAH 1.5bn. This would most severely limit the financial capabilities of her political forces prior to the forthcoming presidential election. The search for such guarantees must have been at the centre of the numerous meetings that Pat Cox and Aleksander Kwaśniewski have had with Tymoshenko and Ukrainian officials as well as the visit of U.S. Ambassador John Tefft to a Kharkiv hospital where Tymoshenko is being treated, and a meeting between Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Guido Westerwelle and Yanukovych.
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There is also a purely psychological factor. According to a number of sources, Tymoshenko’s release for the purpose of medical treatment was temporarily stalled due to her reluctance to make a personal appeal to the president, something Yanukovych is reported to be categorically demanding.
If these nuances are somehow settled and the former Prime Minister eventually makes a trip to the Charité clinic in Berlin, another question will inevitably arise: what will happen after she has recuperated? The German authorities have on numerous occasions emphasized the political motivations behind the criminal cases against Tymoshenko; what will they do? Will Germany return her into the hands of the Ukrainian penitentiary system just like that?
The majority of those who have spoken to The Ukrainian Week – Ukrainian and European MPs, high-ranking officials and diplomats – are convinced that if Tymoshenko does indeed go to Germany, she will apply for political asylum after recovering, and it will most likely be granted. If this happens, she will again be free to travel and communicate at least on German territory and will become the number one political refugee in Europe. However, it is debatable whether this will allow her to have a greater impact on political life in Ukraine than now. Modern-day Ukrainian political émigrés are not especially prominent. At the same time, Tymoshenko is a much more high profile figure than, for example, Valeriy Ivashchenko or Andriy Shkil and will be able to get under the skin of the current authorities—but nothing more.
The Ukrainian authorities will securely guard themselves against the primary threat, which is Tymoshenko’s participation in the 2015 presidential election. There is a conflict in the current Ukrainian legislation: the Constitution does not prevent convicts from running for president, while a special law on elections contains this limitation. Volodymyr Shapoval, former head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), was fired reportedly for acknowledging this fact. The government has a strong majority in the CEC, so it may simply refuse to register Tymoshenko as a candidate. Alternatively, the Constitutional Court, which is loyal to the government, may issue the prohibitive explanation that the Presidential Administration needs.
In exchange for releasing Tymoshenko, the Yanukovych Administration could potentially secure a signed Association Agreement from the EU. Unrelated sources in European institutions and embassies have confirmed to The Ukrainian Week that for many EU countries, the dilemma of signing or not signing an Association Agreement with Ukraine has boiled down to the Tymoshenko issue. Other demands set by Brussels have faded into the background. A representative of a Western embassy in Kyiv frankly admitted in an off-the-record conversation that the Ukrainian issue is by no means at the top of the current European agenda; Europe has more important problems to tackle than Ukraine’s dysfunctional democracy. Thus, the Tymoshenko case has become nearly the only real indicator. The Europeans are ready to turn a blind eye to the lack of judicial system reforms or, for example, election legislation—especially if the Verkhovna Rada finally passes a series of so-called European integration laws in autumn and schedules elections in problem-plagued districts.
According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, there is another reason why the government is inclined to let Tymoshenko receive treatment abroad. The past three years have shown that the President’s strategists are used to killing several birds with one stone. By releasing Tymoshenko they expect to not only secure the Association Agreement but also stir confusion in the opposition camp. Even before the Vilnius Summit, the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party may experience the first consequences. It is now going through a complicated and painful merger with Front Zmin (Front for Change). Tymoshenko’s release may rekindle the smouldering internal conflict between the Front’s members and the “old guard” in the Batkivshchyna party. Some long-time Batkivshchyna members are convinced that communication with Tymoshenko will improve after her departure for Germany, and she will finally be able to say what she really thinks about the internal processes taking place in the party. It is not a given, they say, that she will be as favourable towards Arseniy Yatseniuk as she is in the letters she sometimes sends him from the Kharkiv hospital. Paradoxically, Tymoshenko may be able to better grasp the state of affairs in her party by going to Germany rather than staying in Kharkiv. She is likely to enjoy more freedom of action there as well. The “old guard” is determined to act and is only waiting for Tymoshenko’s command.
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Some long-time Batkivshchyna members have told The Ukrainian Week, especially after the latest round of inter-faction conflicts, that the only thing keeping them from an open fight with Front Zmin is Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. “Just let her come out…then we will consider our duties fulfilled and will no longer tolerate the current leadership of the faction,” stated one of the more radically minded MPs.
In any case, after Tymoshenko’s move to Germany, another powerful player will join (or rather, return to) the opposition camp. Chances that the already quarrelsome opposition leaders will find common ground may become even slimmer. This is precisely what Yanukovych’s circle is after as its popularity plummets and the presidential election approaches.