Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich has justifiably been accused of setting up a “Putin lite” system since his election 18 months ago. Power has been concentrated in his hands, media criticism stifled. Extending the analogy, he has now found his Yukos case.
The accused in Kiev is not, like Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire oligarch. She is Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and Orange revolution co-leader. As in Russia, few in Ukrainian business and politics are whiter than white; shades of grey abound. So the legal assault on Ms Tymoshenko, as with Mr Khodorkovsky, looks like selective justice and a politically-motivated attempt to neutralise an opponent.
Mr Yanukovich’s camp insists that the action is part of a broader corruption clampdown, probing 400 as yet unnamed current officials. Yet nearly all of the high-ranking figures charged to date are Tymoshenko associates.
Moreover, while she faces proliferating investigations, the charge on which Ms Tymoshenko is on trial – carrying a potential 10-year sentence – is highly questionable. She is accused of exceeding her authority in agreeing a 2009 gas deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at an excessively high price.
This raises questions over whether policy steps, particularly during a crisis, should be subject to criminal charges. The European Union welcomed the deal in question as it restored Russian gas flows to Ukraine and further west after a shut-off, and removed an opaque intermediary from the Russia-Ukraine gas trade.
Faced with western criticism, Mr Yanukovich’s circle is rumoured to be seeking a face-saving solution – say, a suspended sentence, keeping Ms Tymoshenko out of jail but also out of the next elections. The international community should reject that kind of cynical manoeuvre.
For the EU, in particular, has far greater leverage over Ukraine than over Russia. It is negotiating a free trade and association agreement with Kiev. EU officials seem reluctant to link the talks with Mr Yanukovich’s democratic record for fear of pushing Kiev back into the arms of Russia, which is trying hard to restore its influence over Ukraine. Yet Kiev has made clear it wants and needs the EU deal, calling closer European integration Ukraine’s “strategic choice”.
That gives Brussels power it should use – to suspend talks if the assault on Ms Tymoshenko continues. Trade privileges should be linked to values. And the values displayed in this case fall far short of those demanded by the EU.