Putin Wins Again as Ukraine Snubs E.U., Keeps Opposition Leader in Prison

Ukraine's decision to rebuff E.U. pressure and keep opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko behind bars firmly puts the East European nation in Russia's camp

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Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

A supporter of jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko holds a portrait of her during a rally in front of the parliament building in Kiev on Nov. 7, 2013

At the start of November, the opposition camp in the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was getting ready to wrap up its protest. It had been going round-the-clock by that point for more than 800 days — a political vigil far longer than any Occupy movement — in the hope of winning the release from prison of Ukraine’s main opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Their demands had almost been met. As a condition of signing a trade and cooperation deal with the E.U., President Viktor Yanukovych seemed ready to release his rival, whom the E.U. considers a political prisoner. That deal looked set to transform the political map of Eastern Europe.

Sitting in their tents, which had turned brown after years of dirt and exhaust from passing cars, the activists beamed at the prospect of Ukraine growing closer to Europe, though their main concern at that point was getting to spend this winter away from the camp. “In any case, it’s too early to celebrate,” said one of them, mischievously pulling a flask of cognac from beneath a blanket. “But it’s hard to resist.” And she was right. It was way too early to celebrate.

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On Thursday, Yanukovych’s government announced it was putting its integration with the E.U. on hold in favor of closer ties with Russia. The same day, Ukraine’s parliament, which is dominated by Yanukovych’s party, scrapped the bills that would have allowed Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment in Germany, destroying her hopes of winning freedom in exile. It was a diplomatic coup for Russia and a major blow to E.U. prestige. In the course of a day, Eastern Europe’s political center of gravity had tilted sharply back toward the East.

Condemnations quickly came pouring in from European capitals. “This is a disappointment not just for the E.U. but, we believe, for the people of Ukraine,” Catherine Ashton, the bloc’s foreign-affairs chief, said in a statement. A more cutting remark appeared on the Twitter feed of Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt: “Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin,” he wrote. “Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”

On Thursday evening, as they frantically tried to explain their decision, Yanukovych’s allies admitted as much. They pointed to the fact that Russia had cut off much of its trade with Ukraine in August, threatening further sanctions if Kiev went ahead with its westward drift. That blockade cost Ukraine’s economy up to $5 billion in the course of four months. “The country cannot afford this,” said Yuri Boiko, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister. “That is why this decision was made.” An official involved in trade talks with Russia, Viktor Suslov, then promised that Moscow “will not impose any more sanctions or limit trade” as long as Ukraine holds off on partnering with Europe. He added, “Anyone who understands our economic situation will support the decision of the government.”

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At Tymoshenko’s party headquarters, in an office building plastered with her portraits in the north of Kiev, her supporters had feared this was coming for weeks. “I’m not going to be at peace until I see her in a hospital in Germany,” her daughter Evgenia told me in her mother’s office on Nov. 4. “I know that anything can go in the opposite direction.” At that point, the President had been pledging for weeks to sign the association agreement with the E.U. at the end of November, and had signaled his willingness to meet the E.U.’s one condition — setting Tymoshenko free.

This had not been an easy decision for him. Next year, Yanukovych will face re-election, and he does not want Tymoshenko running against him or leading the opposition into battle. Back in 2004, Tymoshenko had led the Orange Revolution that ousted Yanukovych and brought her and her pro-Western allies to power. Five years later, Yanukovych got his revenge by narrowly beating her in a race for the presidency, managing to rally the pro-Russian electorate in the eastern half of the country. His government then set out to prosecute Tymoshenko for abuse of office and other crimes, ultimately getting her sentenced to seven years in prison. Because of chronic back pain and other complaints, she has served most of her time so far in guarded hospital wards.

But the air of martyrdom that prison has bestowed, combined with her natural charisma, would give Tymoshenko a chance of turning Yanukovych into a one-term President if she is released in time to lead the opposition. “Yanukovych is afraid to let his political opponent free,” says her daughter Evgenia, who has campaigned for her mother’s release but so far stayed out of politics. “That is the only thing that explains the decision to keep her in prison.”

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So with Thursday’s reversal, of course, Yanukovych will save himself from two short-term threats. The burden of Russian sanctions will likely be lifted, opening the door for Ukraine to join the ranks of Kazakhstan and Belarus in a free-trade bloc dominated by Russia. The President will also limit Tymoshenko’s chances of influencing next year’s presidential race. But in the longer term, it’s not clear that a customs union with Russia is the best way to modernize Ukraine’s straggling economy. And even with Tymoshenko in prison, her supporters still pose a major domestic threat.

On Thursday night, protesters began to gather at Kiev’s Maidan Square, the symbol of the Orange Revolution, and Tymoshenko’s party began preparing for a major rally there this Saturday. The tent camp, which still stands a short walk away on Kiev’s main drag, has meanwhile started hunkering down for another winter of protest. “I think it will stay until my mother is free,” says the younger Tymoshenko. And that may be a long time coming.