Ukraine

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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