Ultimate Betrayal Ukraine Retreats to a Dark Past
Part 2: 'I Don't See a Show Trial'
Yushchenko received the SPIEGEL reporter in the chambers dedicated to his foundation. It resembles a local museum. The walls are decorated with kitschy paintings of idyllic Ukrainian peasant life interspersed with portraits of historic national heroes. The "national" aspect is obviously a matter that is dear to the host's heart. Before him on the table lies a hand-embroidered tablecloth with a fringe of cords, which he absentmindedly weaves during the interview, creating braid after braid -- one miniature Yulia after the other.
The former president says that his health is better these days. But he adds that there is no medical doubt about what happened to him during the 2004 election: It was a deliberate dioxin poisoning -- and the suspects left a trail that leads to Russia. Yet in spite of providing precise information on the individuals in question, he continues, Russia has not responded to his request for extraditions. He has undergone 36 operations, says Yushchenko, whose face is mostly healed, but he has always done this discretely, on weekends. No office hours were sacrificed for this. "Yulia, on the other hand, used the very first day, when I appointed her prime minister, for long photo sessions at the ice rink."
He's the workhorse, she's the showgirl: Yushchenko promptly sets this straight.
The truth is that they both worked hard following their joint victory in 2005 -- but more against each other than for their country. Yushchenko -- a teacher's son, an economist and an antique collector who is known to have stated "I hate politics" before -- looked more to the past than to the present, right from the beginning of his term in office.
"In the 20th century, Ukraine declared its independence six times and lost it again five times. For us, the loss of sovereignty is more than a theoretical threat," says Yushchenko. He had monuments erected and strove for reconciliation among the regions of the country, which have so little in common: western Ukraine, with its imperial Baroque cities, and the gray Donets Basin coal mining region in the east. Yushchenko's solution was a strictly anti-Moscow course and rapid accession to NATO. When he noticed that Tymoshenko was using her position as prime minister to thwart this course, and was not adverse to a cautious rapprochement with Moscow, it became a race to see who could more rapidly hoist the largest number of close friends into important positions.
Before long, neither of them shied away from the ultimate betrayal: secretly making contact with Yanukovych, the arch enemy. The former president is not in the habit of engaging in self-criticism. He blames Yulia alone for the collapse of the partnership: "Maintaining power became an end in itself for her. Delegates in my parliamentary party group were bought so she could secure her position," he claims.
The truth of the matter is that Tymoshenko was never the saint that she stylized herself to be. The business IT specialist always fought with no holds barred, and she became a millionaire entrepreneur in the energy sector as the " gas princess," in part thanks to her skilled interpretation of laws, including deals with dubious oligarchs. Tymoshenko even spent time behind bars before she became a leading figure in the Orange Revolution. She was remanded in custody for 42 days in 2001 on allegations of forgery and smuggling, but was released at the time due to a lack of evidence.
'A Normal Judicial Process'
What does Yushchenko say about the recent trial against his former running mate? Putting aside for a moment all points of criticism, all accumulated differences and all the pent-up anger and frustration, shouldn't he feel a sense of solidarity with her and sharply criticize this shameful show trial as his friends in the West have done?
"I don't see a show trial, but rather a normal judicial process. Even politicians are not above the law. Wasn't former French President Jacques Chirac also forced to stand trial?" he asks.
Yushchenko, who has so often been accused of wavering on his decisions, cannot be deterred from his opinion. He says there was nothing wrong with the proceedings against Yulia Tymoshenko. Even when his attention was drawn to the fact that no one can claim that the former prime minister made personal financial gains from the agreement, it's still not enough to shake his conviction that she committed criminal acts. "What happened in late 2008 was a tragedy for Ukraine and a victory for Russia!" he shouts excitedly.
Now red in the face, he sketches a number of figures on a piece of paper. He says that he is sure that he could have forced the Russians to lower their prices of energy supplies to Ukraine, but in mid-January 2009, the prime minister independently took it upon herself to travel to Moscow to negotiate an overnight deal there. He says that he subsequently asked her on four occasions in Kiev what price she had agreed to. Four times she merely said: "A good one." When he later discovered that Ukraine was paying more than what most Western European countries were charged per cubic meter of natural gas, he was flabbergasted.
"I am convinced that Yulia only signed because she was to receive a significant price reduction for a specific period of time in which the elections were to take place. With her pockets full and the certainty that she had resolved a dispute, she was able to go out and woo the voters," says Yushchenko.
The presidential election in January 2010 was a disaster for Yushchenko. He finished only in fifth place, with around 5.4 percent of the vote. This is the worst result ever achieved by an incumbent in free elections. Tymoshenko and Yanukovych battled it out for first place. In the runoff, Yulia barely lost out, but later claimed -- admittedly without any sound evidence -- that her rival had rigged the election again. "She simply miscalculated," says the humiliated former president, Yushchenko, not without a sense of satisfaction.
Kiev at a Crossroads
Over the past 19 months, Yanukovych, the hardliner who runs the country -- and is known for having said, "I have never stooped to matching myself against a woman engaged in political chatter" -- has done everything in his power to eliminate his rival. Although his relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin has deteriorated and Yanukovych likes to act the pro-European, his actions are actually leading Ukraine back east -- and he seems to be attempting to navigate an extremely risky extortionate middle course.
Kiev is at a crossroads: Either Ukraine returns to a course toward greater transparency and the rule of law, and earns the EU Association Agreement with ties to a free Europe, or it succumbs to the lure of the Kremlin leadership and forms, as Putin has proposed, a customs union together with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This might result in the country paying lower gas prices than it does today, but it would also mean that Ukraine would again fall under the control of Moscow.
Since Yanukovych wants to keep all his options open, he will probably suggest behind the scenes that Yulia's trial be reevaluated. He could use his presidential powers to reduce her sentence to a fine -- a compromise that Tymoshenko won't accept, at least according to Ivan Kirilenko, the parliamentary group leader of her party. If she had a criminal record, her civil rights would be curtailed and she couldn't run in the next election. Another possibility: At the request of the president, the judiciary finds a procedural error and the verdict is repealed over the coming days, without a long appeal hearing -- which is the solution EU officials in Brussels are hoping to see.
And what of Yushchenko, that tragically failed, bitter hero, who can no longer make any reasonable distinctions when it comes to Yulia Tymoshenko because he is so consumed with hate?
He plans in any case to run again in the next election as the top candidate of his small party, as he told SPIEGEL. Opinion polls give him under 5 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Is he a masochist, a true successor to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who was born in the western Ukrainian town of Lviv and gave his name to those who are impassioned with pain?
Yushchenko forces a smile. "I am a politician," he says during the interview, as he twists the last -- probably the 20th -- tablecloth fringe into a braid, "I have to run again, I just have to."
When he testified last August at the trial of his eternal rival, there was a memorable confrontation. The judge, who the defendant consistently called "a puppet" of the president, showed himself to be surprisingly accommodating after the particularly negative testimony of Yushchenko, her former comrade-in-arms, and he asked Yulia Tymoshenko if she also had any questions for the witness. "No," said the defendant, now no longer in the role of Maggie or Evita, but a modern-day Joan of Arc, ready for the fire. "I wouldn't want to destroy the last illusion of our Orange Revolution."
They didn't deign to look at each other again. This is the dream couple in a Ukrainian version of Danny DeVito's "The War of the Roses": In the final scene, amidst their ruined relationship and shards of broken glass, Ukraine is the real loser.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: Ukraine Retreats to a Dark Past
- Part 2: 'I Don't See a Show Trial'