As Pressure for Timoshenko's Release Mounts, Germany Demands More

April 26, 2013
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Rumors are swirling in Kiev about Mrs. Timoshenko’s impending release. Whether or not they have any basis in fact (it’s doubtful that they do), the Yanukovich administration is under increasing pressure to comply with Europe’s demand for her liberation.

The momentum for Mrs. Timoshenko’s release was given impetus by the abrupt, though not entirely unexpected, pardon of Yuriy Lutsenko. That event prompted favorable comment in Brussels, but also expressions of Europe’s unwillingness to be fobbed off with Mr. Lutsenko’s release, welcome as it was. What Europe really wants is for all charges against Mrs. Timoshenko to be dropped.

If that were Europe’s only demand, Mr. Yanukovich would be confronted with a straightforward political calculus: Are the (presumed) political benefits of concluding an Association Agreement with Europe worth the political challenge and possible blow to his re-election chances of having Mrs. Timoshenko – arguably the only oppositionist of national and international stature – at large in the land?

In calculating his move, Mr. Yanukovich would have to take into account a number of factors: Is there a way to set conditions for Julia’s release that would bar her from participating in the presidential election? Could they be made to stick? How would Europe react? Is the Association Agreement and Ukraine’s being joined at the hip to an sclerotic, dysfunctional and authoritarian Europe really as popular among Ukrainians as some seem to think? How would choosing Europe over Russia play in Yanukovich’s political home base?

The calculus has its share of pitfalls, but is, nevertheless, straightforward.

Then along comes German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said , on April 17th in Berlin, that Mrs. Timoshenko must be released. This puts her at loggerheads with the faction around ex-Polish head of state Alexander Kwasniewski that wants Brussels to conclude a deal with Ukraine whether or not Julia continues to sit. In their view, Ukraine must be roped into an anti-Russian orientation at all costs, even if this means throwing Julia under the proverbial bus.

But Mrs. Merkel begs to differ. Mrs. Timoshenko’s release from prison is a requirement, but it is not enough. Ukraine, in her view, is not fit to have an Association Agreement in its current state. It suffers from a “whole series of problems.” She expects Ukraine to fully comply with the panoply of judicial and electoral system reforms laid down at the Ukraine-EU summit last February 25th. In her words: “It is a question, on the whole, of the legal system in Ukraine and of the observance of human rights and civil liberties.”

This is a headache for Yanukovich. It’s one thing to face an unpalatable political trade-off; it’s another to be told that even if you release Julia, you may not get the pay-off you were expecting. So why run the risk?

To add insult to injury, the EU’s representative in Kiev, Ambassador Jan Tombinski says the Verkhovna Rada is too hopelessly dysfunctional to allow Ukraine any realistic shot at enacting the kinds of reforms Mrs. Merkel deems a pre-requisite for joining “Europe.”

So perhaps it's better to do nothing at all? Official Kiev may be coming to that conclusion. Prime Minister Azarov told reporters on April 23rd that the Timoshenko case "will be solved when ongoing cases are over," which, according to the Associated Press, “could take months or years.”

From Mr. Yanukovich’s point of view, this might be just as well. The EU’s pre-conditions for signature of the Association Agreement comprise, according to journalist Anastasia Bereza, 19 distinct reforms that she calls “a huge set of changes, and if they all went into effect at the same time, it would mean…breaking up the system that is the basis of [the authorities’] survival.”

Why destabilize your power base for an agreement that offers Ukraine so little by way of tangible benefits?

EU ambassador Tombinski, of course, says the agreement would lead to “better living conditions, the modernization of the country, an action plan for Ukraine to become a better place for its citizens,” but cannot offer any concrete reasons why this should be so. The Greeks, the Cypriots and the Bulgarians were inspired by similar visions of a radiant future at the end of history; all have come to grief. So, for that matter, have the English (though in different ways, for different reasons), and are now clamoring to get out.

For Ukraine’s sake, Kiev’s dealings with Brussels must not be a one-way street. It should answer the EU’s demands with demands of its own. Europe will gain far more from anchoring Ukraine into an anti-Russian orientation than Ukraine will gain from Europe.

Yanukovich should remember the words Charles de Gaulle uttered to the Shah of Iran while on a state visit to Teheran in 1960: “Put all your energies into remaining independent.”

The Shah paid no heed, and we all know what happened to him.