Putting Pressure on Ukraine: Germany Takes Hard Line in Tymoshenko Case

By Christian Neef in Kiev

Berlin has isolated itself within Europe with its hard line on Ukraine's treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko. The German government is insisting that Kiev release the former prime minister from prison, otherwise there can be no progress in EU-Ukraine relations. But a possible deal to let Tymoshenko receive medical treatment in Germany may just be another trick by President Yanukovych.

Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the media, surrounded by Interior Ministry officers, during a session at a court in Kiev (October 2011 photo). Zoom
REUTERS

Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the media, surrounded by Interior Ministry officers, during a session at a court in Kiev (October 2011 photo).

Silence surrounds the estate at Turovskaya Street 13 in Kiev. The ochre-colored villa with an attached office building is in the old Podol neighborhood, not far from the banks of the Dnieper River. There is no sign or plaque, but there are surveillance cameras on every corner, allowing security personnel to monitor everything that happens on the street.

The address, Ulitsa Turovskaya 13, is that of the Batkivshchyna, or "Fatherland" Party, the party that proclaimed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine more than seven years ago.

As quiet as it seems outside the party headquarters on Turovskaya Street, there is turmoil behind the building walls, especially on this particular day. There has been news from Italy that Arsen Avakov was arrested in Frosinone, a town not far from Rome. Avakov was once the governor of the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine and head of the regional branch of the Fatherland Party. Now Ukraine has issued a warrant for his arrest through Interpol, for alleged "abuse of office."

A special committee is meeting at the party headquarters. Sergei Vlasenko, a member of parliament and Batkivshchyna's most important attorney, has until the evening to find a legal representative to prevent Avakov from being extradited.

The arrest warrant is the Ukrainian president's most recent effort to silence Batkivshchyna. Several former cabinet ministers from the party are already in custody, while others have fled abroad. Nevertheless, President Viktor Yanukovych isn't letting up. Eliminating the opposition, the people who, with their 2004 Orange Revolution, prevented him from assuming the presidency at the time, has become an obsession for him.

Behind Bars

But hasn't he already achieved his goal? Even his worst enemy is now behind bars: Yulia Tymoshenko, 51, the former prime minister and chairwoman of the Fatherland Party, is serving a seven-year sentence at a women's prison in Kharkiv. She too was found guilty of "abuse of office."

Tymoshenko, who is only 1.60 meters (5 feet 3 inches) tall but who is admiringly dubbed, even by her adversaries, as "the only man in Ukrainian politics," remains a thorn in his side. Because of her, the European Union placed its first association agreement with Ukraine on ice. The European Council is demanding her release, and the German government is also applying pressure to Yanukovych. This is a political camp of the outraged, those who believe that despotism and political irresponsibility have reached intolerable levels in Yanukovych's country.

The other camp is that of the political pragmatists. It includes those who warn against tying the treatment of the largest country in Eastern Europe to the fate of one woman. And a woman, no less, who is not a dissident but is in fact more like a female version of jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Like him, Tymoshenko also came into a lot of money by questionable means earlier in her life.

So far, the camp of the outraged has prevailed. Ukrainian President Yanukovych is more isolated than almost any other national leader on the continent. "Everyone crosses to the other side of the street when they see him coming," says a politician in Brussels who preferred not to be identified. A former ambassador in Kiev is convinced that "Yulia's case is like a noose around Yanukovych's neck."

'Yanukovych Wants to Kill Tymoshenko'

Sergei Vlasenko is also Tymoshenko's attorney, and he just visited her on the previous day. The 45-year-old is nervous and has trouble sitting still. He has had the same weekly schedule for months now. On Mondays, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays, he boards a morning flight to Kharkiv and takes the 6 p.m. flight back to Kiev.

"I'm with Mrs. Tymoshenko at 10:30," says Vlasenko. "We are allowed to go to a small room across from her cell, where there is nothing but an iron bed and a chair. She lies on the bed and I sit across from her. She can't stand up, because of a herniated disk." They spend two-and-a-half hours reviewing files, followed by lunch and then another three hours in the afternoon, until Vlasenko leaves at 5 p.m.

The conversation usually revolves around the next proceedings, which the attorney general plans to open against Tymoshenko on April 19. This time she will be accused of tax evasion and the embezzlement of public funds while she was the head of United Energy Systems, a former Ukrainian natural gas trading company. That was in the 1990s.

The files, all 72 volumes of them, are ready. Observers assume that the verdict will be delivered precisely when the appeal court issues its final ruling on the first case. In that trial, the former prime minister was accused of "abuse of office" during the conclusion of the Ukrainian-Russian gas treaty in January 2009. The verdict is expected in mid-May. The scheduling is intended to ensure that Tymoshenko doesn't leave the prison under any circumstances.

"Yanukovych wants to kill Tymoshenko," says Vlasenko.

Calling Black White

But is it possible to kill a woman whom the West is currently watching so closely?

"She has enough information to suggest that this is indeed possible," repeats her attorney, "which is why she is refusing all treatment in the prison." After all, he adds, they also tried to poison her former close ally, Viktor Yushchenko, who went on to become president. "Tymoshenko hasn't been treated since she was admitted in November. Her back problem has gotten worse, so that the chances of successful treatment are becoming slimmer and slimmer."

Vlasenko taps the file in front of him. It's an assessment by Professor Karl Max Einhäupl, the head of the Charité hospital in Berlin, who was able to examine Tymoshenko for five hours on an evening in February. "Immediate inpatient treatment" is necessary, Einhäupl writes in the 12-page document.

The reports in the Ukrainian media that the Kiev prison authority has indicated a willingness to soften its position "is nonsense," says Vlasenko. The deputy attorney general was in Europe only last week, he adds, and said that Tymoshenko isn't even sick. "They're calling black white and white black," says the attorney. "They also obstruct me as much as they can. They recently refused to let me back into the prison after lunch, and they suddenly wanted to see my law diploma, in the original." He pulls out his iPhone to play the video he recorded of the scene.

Yes, says Vlasenko, his client does want to go to Berlin's Charité hospital for treatment, but she won't "defect from this country." In other words, she won't apply for asylum.

A Ukrainian Joan of Arc

German and Western European politicians had long believed that the proud Tymoshenko had savored her arrest and the ensuing trial as a PR event, because it enabled her to present herself in court appearances as a Ukrainian Joan of Arc. They had also believed that Yanukovych was controlled by the oligarchs, who hate the former premier to the core, because she deprived them of some of their perks in recent years.

But now things appear to have changed. Tymoshenko has recognized just how serious her situation is, says a diplomat in Kiev. But Yanukovych, the diplomat adds, is acting on his own, determined to eliminate his most serious rival. After two years of his presidency, his and his party's popularity has declined dramatically. According to a recent poll, the president's approval rating has dropped to only 13 percent.

Yanukovych, who spent time in prison for theft and assault in his younger years and has never been known as a particularly bright person, has produced no successes. He has taken Ukraine's debts to a dangerous level, has failed to find the right approach to dealing with Russia and has scared off investors. Yanukovych is driving Ukraine "up against a wall," says a Western adviser to former President Yushchenko.

He has never made a good impression in relation to the Tymoshenko case, getting deeper and deeper involved in it with alleged tricks, dishonesty and lies. Many people have now experienced Yanukovych and his state apparatus at first hand.

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