From Moscow To Kiev: What’s At Stake In Trial Of Ukraine’s Top Opposition Leader

A court in Kiev has rejected a request to free opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko from detention during a trial of abuse of office. Russia has surprised many by siding with the former Prime Minister.

A file photo of Timoshenko (EPP)
A file photo of Timoshenko (EPP)
Valery Kalnish and Elena Chernenko

KIEV - Former Ukranian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was long thought to be a major Moscow foe. Now, Russia has made a point of vocally supporting the opposition leader against criminal accusations of abuse of office.

Timoshenko, the country's most powerful opposition leader, was held in contempt of court after the prosecution said she disrupted proceedings by refusing to cooperate and insulting the judge, calling him a ‘puppet" of president Viktor Yanukovich.

Some say Yanukovich wants her disqualified from upcoming elections. Timoshenko is accused of abuses relating to the signing of gas agreements with Russia in 2009, and the case threatens to unravel a gas deal struck between the two countries.

Prosecutors say she authorized, without Cabinet approval, a 10-year deal that nearly doubles the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas, following a so-called gas war when Moscow cut off supplies to its southwestern neighbor.

Timoshenko was being held in the same room where she spent several weeks in 2001 during an investigation for alleged abuses over the Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine company, which she headed in the 1990s. Supporters of the opposition leader have been surrounding the court, day and night. The city authorities banned protests in Independence Square, but her backers came up with the clever ploy of setting up tents, which aren't outlawed.

On Saturday afternoon, addressing those gathered next to the court, the first deputy of her party, Alexander Turchinov, declared Timoshenko's arrest as proof that Ukranie's current leaders had crossed the line towards authoritarianism.

"By throwing Yulio Timoshenko behind bars without any kind of legal basis, the regime has demonstrated that they will stop at nothing to destroy their opponents," Turchinov said.

Timoshenko's party members were expecting a growing number of Ukrainians to rally behind her plight, but the summer holidays meant only 300 people turned up to hear Turchinov speak. Within a few days, her supporters say this is expected to swell to around 10,000, with people coming in from other regions around the country.

One parliament member said: "We hope that the authorities, and in particular, one person, Yanukovich, will come to their senses. Many countries have reacted to the arrest of Timoshenko, including Russia." Her supporters are still holding out hope the judge will reconsider and release Timoshenko.

The risks of isolation

Meanwhile, representatives of the United States and European Union have demanded her immediate release, accusing the court of being politically motivated. There is no talk yet of sanctions against Kiev, but some sources in Brussels have indicated that if the opposition leader remains behind bars, Yanukovich can forget about EU trade talks or integration.

But the most notable voice from abroad was Moscow's. The Russian foreign ministry has unexpectedly stepped in, declaring that Timoshenko did nothing illegal. "All gas agreements from 2009 were concluded in strict accordance with the legislation of both states and within international law," said a ministry statement.

One Kremlin source told Kommersant that the arrest "will not have positive consequences for Yanukovich."

But the Ukrainian president's camp said it expected nothing less from Moscow, which one government source said was playing a "double game."

"We know that Russia supported Timoshenko a long time ago, Moscow wanted her to win in the 2010 elections, and Russia has the most to lose from her arrest," the source told Kommersant. "If the court finds that there were violations in the agreement, that would be the basis for a review of the agreement, which Russia does not want."

Meanwhile, Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the Duma committee that oversees Russia's relations with former Soviet countries, said Ukrainian authorities have badly miscalculated in the case.

"It is a delicate situation because it is not just Timoshenko in the dock," said Zatulin. "Gas agreements with Russia and strategic relations between the countries have also been put at risk."

Read the original story in Russian

Photo - EPP

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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