By Michael Willard, CEO of the Kyiv Post and former press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd.
She was sentenced early last week to seven years in prison after a lengthy trial in which she was jailed much of the time for contempt of court, which she openly displayed to the consternation of the judge. The case is being appealed.
There is no evidence she personally profited from the deal with Russia. Once again, Ukraine, which sometimes seems to have two left feet, shot itself in both of them. Rarely do a leader’s decisions result in a jail sentence—except in authoritarian countries.
Is she a political prisoner? Of course she is. Anyone who can see beyond the length of a blind man’s cane knows charges were brought on behalf of the Presidential administration to sideline Tymoshenko, keeping her from the political process.
In doing so, President Viktor Yanukovych took a page out of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s book. The Russian leader has a history of muzzling opposition. Ironically, Putin condemned the verdict, most likely because it would have cast a reflection on the gas deal.
There probably was a dose of vindictiveness involved in the trial.
Call it a hangover from the 2005 Orange Revolution which saw Tymoshenko rise to power as prime minister and Viktor Yushchenko as president, overturning a fraudulent election that would have brought Yanukovych to power.
In a remarkable comeback and due in large part to the feuding between the prime minister and the president, Yanukovych returned to power in 2010 in an election that was viewed by international observers as mostly fair.
How should the United States react? Don’t place her in the same category one would someone who was Nobel Peace Prize material or even a Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought candidate. She is not. She is an intelligent, ambitions politician.
The United States should not link the Tymoshenko trial to any punitive diplomatic counter-measures involving U.S.-Ukrainian relations. It should not take actions that could hobble a difficult economy and make it worse. This would hurt the people—not the people in power.
The U.S. should, however, use its considerable power of persuasion. It should, at the first opportunity, send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Ukraine for a face-to-face discussion with President Yanukovych. The Obama Administration can use the boost.
Her discussion should not just include a plea that Tymoshenko be freed at once from prison, but that she also be allowed to participate in the political process in order to restore a measure of not just democracy, but legitimacy to the current regime.
The United States should also encourage other countries to keep up the drumbeat of outrage at this injustice.
No, Tymoshenko is not a candidate for the Nobel Prize next year—but she is a woman wronged, and because of this, Ukraine’s young democracy is on life-support.
Willard is CEO of the Kyiv Post and has lived in Ukraine and Russia the last 17 years. From 1976 to 1983 he served as press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd.