When the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her power in negotiating a gas deal with Russia in 2009 and sentenced to seven years in jail in a Kiev courtroom on Tuesday, things got kind of crazy. One of her supporters tried to shout down the judge. Outside, people threw plastic chairs. The feminists took their shirts off. Europeans expressed their dismay at what they saw as a politically motivated trial and threatened to scuttle Ukraine’s pending free-trade agreement with Europe. Russian observers began to compare Tymoshenko to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon and opposition cause célèbre, and Tymoshenko herself compared her ordeal to the 1937 purges.
What’s going on? Rather simple, really. Tymoshenko lost the presidential election in 2010 to Victor Yanukovich, the current president and, according to most observers, the one who is tossing Tymoshenko into jail. That makes the most sense, given that, after the elections, Tymoshenko remained powerful and popular, which is not hard to do given the President’s doltish, apparatchik’s demeanor. Being in the opposition and fighting her way back to power is, according to her former advisers, her most natural, strongest state. When she was prime minister, on and off after the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, she became a controversial, polarizing figure. In the opposition, she becomes a magnetic force, a figure for whom people will throw chairs and camp out in the center of Kiev, someone they’ll stand up and strip for. It’s too dangerous to have someone like this roving around, so she was taken out.
In Byzantium, which is where ancient Kiev and, later, Moscow got their religion and founding mythologies, this was known as political mutilation. Since an emperor was supposed to be the earthly manifestation of God, and God is perfection, so, too, an emperor must be perfect. Thus, when an emperor was overthrown—as became increasingly common in Byzantium—he was then physically mangled: castrated, blinded, or had his nose sliced off. This prevented him from being taken seriously as a man, leading troops into battle, or being the incarnation of the divine, respectively. It was in other words, insurance against having to face the same rival again.
In contemporary Kiev, we see a similar dynamic. Yanukovich and Tymoshenko first met as rivals in 2004, when Yanukovich won a fraudulent election against Tymoshenko’s mentor, Victor Yuschenko. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko brought Kiev out into the streets, into the Maidan—or Independence—Square, where tens of thousands camped out and rallied for weeks until the election was overturned and Yuschenko was swept into power, with Tymoshenko as his prime minister. On the Maidan, Tymoshenko was transformed from a brunette, Russian-speaking gas-industry power player into her current guise of blond, braided, Ukranian-speaking Joan of Arc. She became a hero with her own base of support, which allowed her to eventually cannibalize Yuschenko. Then, in 2010, with Yuschenko out of the way, she took on Yanukovich in the presidential elections, and came very close to beating him. When she didn’t, she went back into the opposition, where she became an even stronger, better politician than she was when she was trying to govern. She again became the heroine at the gates of the stodgy, ineffective, and corrupt establishment. The fact that she has been accused of being one of the most corrupt players in that establishment—she’s been arrested twice before—quickly fell into the recesses of the public consciousness.
A third battle was unthinkable, and Tymoshenko simply had to be neutralized. And since one couldn’t feasibly blind her or cut off her nose (not that that would produce any real effect), she was charged with overstepping her duties as prime minister when she negotiated a gas deal with Russia, in 2009, that ended the two countries’ crippling gas wars. It is a strange charge that has puzzled international legal experts—and her negotiating partner, Vladimir Putin. “To be honest, I can’t quite understand why she got those seven years,” he said to reporters while on a trip to Beijing.
It’s funny to hear Putin say that, because he has been a master at neutralizing powerful enemies, including Boris Berezovsky, the man who made him king, or Khodorkovsky, who dared to impede his consolidation of power and, allegedly, wealth. But Khodorkovsky never went away. Prison was his makeover, from detested robber baron to beloved martyr. And Tymoshenko, it seems, is following the same route because in taking her down, Yanukovich played right to her strengths. “She likes to live in crisis,” Taras Berezovets, Tymoshenko’s campaign adviser, told me when we met in Kiev during the 2010 campaign. “It gives her more energy, and she makes mistakes in calm situations. In crisis, she is like a string. She makes fewer mistakes.” Another strength? “She is a P.R. maven in her soul,” according to Berezovets. Instead of mutilating her and removing her from the game—the conviction was supposed to keep her out of the next round of parliamentary elections—the trial has been her comeback tour, elevating her to international prominence once again, as Ukraine’s martyr. She has become not an embodiment of the divine, but of Ukraine’s victimization at the hands of the Russians: there’s a thread of commentary that sees in Yanukovich’s actions the “Putinization”—that is, Russianization, colonization—of Ukraine.
Moreover, Yanukovich doesn’t seem to have Putin’s solid-steel spine. He has already started backtracking, saying, “This is not a final decision…. Ahead lies the appeals court, and it will without a doubt make a decision within the bounds of the law, but the decision will have great significance.” When that decision comes, given the international pressure, it will no doubt leave Tymoshenko not just unharmed but strengthened, and within striking distance at Yanukovich—for a third time.
Taking Out Tymoshenko [TNY]