The World from Berlin 'Ukraine May Soon Have Pariah Status Like Belarus'

Europe and the United States have blasted the Tuesday verdict that sentenced former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison, saying the trial was politically motivated. German commentators agree, but argue the EU should still forge stronger relations with Kiev.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko's sentencing has been widely condemned.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko's sentencing has been widely condemned.

Warnings from Europe and the United States against using the case for political ends were unmistakably clear during the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev. In the wake of the guilty verdict and the seven-year prison sentence handed down to Tymoshenko on Tuesday, the outrage has been palpable.

In a statement released by US Press Secretary Jay Carney, the White House called the trial "politically motivated" and said the country was "deeply disappointed." The verdict "raised serious concerns about the government of Ukraine's commitment to democracy and rule of law," it added.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was just as harsh in his appraisal of the verdict. "Today's judgement ... is a setback for Ukraine," he said in a statement. "It unfortunately casts a very negative light on the rule of law in Ukraine." Several other European leaders likewise condemned Tuesday's verdict and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he "didn't quite understand why she was sentenced to seven years."

Tymoschenko, one of the primary leaders of Ukraine's 2004-2005 pro-democracy movement, known as the Orange Revolution, was convicted of abusing her power as prime minister. The court found that she had improperly forced the national natural gas company Naftogaz to sign a contract with Russia in 2009 to resolve a price dispute between the two countries. The government of current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych says that the deal cost Ukraine 1.5 billion hryvna (about $190 million).

'Deeply Disappointed'

But Tymoschenko has also been a long-time rival and critic of Yanukovych's. The Orange Revolution was a direct response to his fraudulent election to the presidency in late 2004. Furthermore, Tymoshenko still has a large following in Ukraine, making her potentially a dangerous rival to Yanukovych in the future.

European Union officials, too, voiced their concern about the trial on Tuesday and said that it could have consequences for ties between the EU and Ukraine. The EU is "deeply disappointed" according to a statement issued Tuesday by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs representative. The trial, the statement says, "did not respect the international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process." The EU will "reflect on its policies toward Ukraine," including closer trade ties which are currently under negotiation, it added.

Still, it seems unlikely that Tuesday's verdict was the final word in the case. Tymoshenko has vowed to appeal the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights and Yanukovych himself seemed to hint that a compromise could still be in the works when he said that the verdict was not final due to the impending appeals process. Indeed, some analysts think that she may still be released.

Several German politicians from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats voiced outrage at the verdict on Tuesday and Wednesday. Gunther Kirchbaum, head of the European Union committee in German parliament, said that Ukraine had "departed from rule-of-law standards," while CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe called the verdict "a scandal." Georg Schirmbeck, a CDU expert on Eastern Europe, called it a return to barbarism.

Media commentators in Germany voiced similar concerns.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Brussels is justifiably showing Yanukovych the cold shoulder. But the verdict has also put the EU in a difficult position. It has an interest in encouraging democratization in Ukraine by binding the country to the West. Reaching a deal in the negotiations over an EU-Ukraine free trade agreement would be an important success in the 'fight' for Ukraine, which has long been at the heart of Russian efforts to re-establish its old empire under a new name. Yanukovych's see-saw politics has caught Ukraine between the two sides."

"Yanukovych's announcement that that there will still be appeal proceedings with an 'important verdict' could signal that the Ukrainian president understands he can't just toss the West aside. The political-industrial complex in Ukraine doesn't want to return to being under Russian control and at the mercy of Moscow's gas policies. The country, people and oligarchs must decide: Ukraine will only continue to waste away if it remains in the twilight zone between Western democracy and Eastern despotism in which Tymoshenko's verdict took place."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The outcome of the Tymoshenko cause is a challenge to the international community, and above all to the European Union.... How should Europe sell the idea that a country which so flagrantly violates democratic and constitutional principles should be rewarded nonetheless? It is high time to admit that the EU's policies in Ukraine and other neighboring Eastern European countries have failed."

"A few million euros to boost democratic development and the prospect of closer economic contacts are not enough in lieu of a clear affirmation that the eastern countries also have a real chance at becoming EU members. An adjustment in Brussels policy is desperately needed when it comes to the former Soviet republics. Otherwise Tymoshenko's case will serve as an example elsewhere."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Ukraine, a large country on the crossroads between the EU and Russia, took a big step away from Europe and towards Moscow on Tuesday. What happened to Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia has now happened to Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine. The potentially most dangerous figure to the current government has been put behind bars for seven years following a questionable trial."

"After the systematic curbs on democracy and the rule of law in Russia and Belarus, Ukraine too now seems to be moving in this direction. The Putinization of the political system ... has come a step closer."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Yulia Tymoshenko never brought her country much luck. She was prime minister twice and both times her disputes with the presidents in charge created deep divisions in Ukraine. She only feels comfortable when she's in a fight, and that's when she gains popularity. That is her style, that explains her success, but it also shows: She never cared much about the fate of Ukraine, it was always about herself."

"But the verdict announced yesterday was too harsh. It is questionable whether government leaders should be held legally responsible for treaties with other states -- in this case with Russia and its gas giant Gazprom."

"President Viktor Yanukovych wasn't big enough to enter into a political rather than legal confrontation with his rival. He has resorted to the same injustice as Putin, who keeps trying to break the spine of his rival, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, through trials."

"But Europe shouldn't fall into the Tymoshenko trap now. Criticism of the harsh verdict is justified. But the negotiations about an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine should continue. Europe must reward the strategic decision of Ukraine to seek closer ties with the EU."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Ukraine is degenerating into a pseudo-democracy and a pseudo-constitutional state -- it is degenerating back to how it was before the Orange Revolution."

"This uninhibited demonstration of power could turn out to be Yanukovych's greatest mistake: He has granted the opposition a political martyr around whom they can rally once again in the future. And, from a foreign policy perspective, the Ukrainian regime has, with Tuesday's verdict, completely sidelined itself. You can forget about further convergence with the European Union. If Ukraine isn't careful, it could soon have the same pariah status as Belarus."

-- Charles Hawley


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