The End of the Tymoshenko Saga – or Just the Beginning?

October 16, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Speculation is rife that a “deal” is imminent to allow the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for “medical treatment” in Germany in exchange for the willingness of the European Union (EU) to sign an Association Agreement (AA) in Vilnius next month. (In fact, she may already have been freed by the time this commentary appears.)

President Viktor Yanukovych, who in recent weeks has been the target of a stepped-up campaign of pressure from European leaders, has fed these expectations: “I hope that very soon we will conclusively work out by what means we can settle this question.”

Even at this late stage, some important details remained unresolved. Most notable is the question of whether Tymoshenko would be released only conditionally for emergency medical reasons, or whether she would be pardoned or legislatively absolved of charges, allowing her to return to Ukraine and engage in politics. Tymoshenko has said she won’t accept “exile.”

Upon arrival in Germany, it can be expected that Tymoshenko’s medical condition will improve dramatically. After an astonishingly rapid recovery time she will soon be out of the hospital and actively engaged in politics. Her first obvious objective would be lifting any restrictions on her return to Ukraine and engaging in political activities, or quashing any remaining threat to prosecute criminal charges against her.

Once Tymoshenko is in the West, it will be clear that she’s in a much more powerful position than she could command from her prison cell. She can expect total access to Western media (hitting the TV circuit, meeting with the editorial boards of major publications, who already are sympathetic to her); to Western politicians (throughout Europe and the U.S. as well; she might even add Moscow to her itinerary); and to think tanks and universities (key incubators of elite opinion). Her platform to rail against any conditions of her release (even ones she might have agreed to) and excoriate the evil “dictator” Yanukovych will be unlimited. To an unprecedented degree, Tymoshenko at large will be able to define the West’s perceptions of Ukraine and of Yanukovych, and to a significant extent set the Western policy agenda.

Yanukovych will also find that the AA – the prize for which he would have freed Tymoshenko to obtain – will also be hostage to his once and future rival’s wishes during the lengthy process of approval by EU Member States. Tymoshenko no doubt wants the AA ratified for her own reasons, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be in a position to extract a heavy political price – designed to tilt the 2015 playing field – through judicious application of influence in EU capitals.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych would likely find himself in the worst of all worlds: an AA that remains without ratification for a protracted period (which is as good as no AA at all) while trade relations with Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union plummet, with dire consequences for Ukraine’s economy. Still, Kiev would be expected to move forward with EU regulatory compliance measures that will cost Ukraine an estimated 165 billion euros over 10 years – the one-year equivalent of Ukraine’s entire GDP. As AIU Director Anthony T. Salvia has analyzed, Ukraine’s fiscal and economic problems will soon reach a critical point: a perfect storm negatively impacting the country’s creditworthiness (and possibly triggering default), foreign exchange reserves, and energy pricing and availability. The EU, with its own troubles, can do little to offset these overlapping crises. And what they might be able do, for example on energy re-export to Ukraine, they may be unwilling to do to the extent Ukraine would require.

Again, Tymoshenko’s voice will be a powerful influence on how much and what kind of help the West will extend, with the main criterion being possible impact on the hoped-for unseating of Yanukovych in 2015. If Yanukovych thinks he’ll be the favorite of London, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Warsaw, etc., not to mention Washington, because he’s the one who brought Ukraine into the AA, he’d do well to reconsider his assumptions. “Even if she’s released, the Tymoshenko affair represents only the tip of the iceberg in a country where the climate for transparency and fair competition in politics continues to worsen,” writes one analyst giving grudging credit to Yanukovych as “the president who may secure Ukraine’s European future” – while calling for electoral reforms to help topple him in 2015. (For their own reasons, Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok might have their own reasons to regret their calls for Tymoshenko’s freedom if she reestablishes herself as Yanukovych’s only credible challenger.)

In short, even if Yanukovych’s release of Tymoshenko guarantees the AA signing (itself a questionable proposition), he may find that his big problems with her have just started.