For more than a month Ukraine has been playing a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps with the EU over the Tymoshenko trial. The proceedings were repeatedly interrupted during awkward moments, including Yanukovych’s visit to Poland in early September, the annual YES summit in Crimea and the Warsaw Eastern Partnership summit at the end of the month. Delay implied second thoughts and possible compromise.
But both sides were trapped by the necessity of treating the trial as a purely judicial process. Compromise could hardly be formalised in the open. The most widely-discussed exit strategy was for the Ukrainian parliament to decriminalise the sections of the Criminal Code under which Tymoshenko was charged – which was awkward and messy, but perhaps the least messy option.
Yanukovych duly went to Warsaw for the Eastern Partnership summit and heard the same message, but nothing worse. There was a much bigger row with Belarus, whose delegation walked out. The official line in Brussels was therefore that the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine were still due to be signed at the EU-Ukraine summit, probably in December.
So the verdict is a shock. Tymoshenko gets seven years. She may also apparently be fined $190 million, and will be prevented from standing in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Unless Kiev signals that something else will happen pretty quickly – such as an appeal, a retrial, or the ‘decriminalisation’ – then the EU must act.
Before the verdict, there was still a genuine and important debate between those who wanted to draw a line clearly and quickly to demonstrate the tougher conditionality principles in the revamped Eastern Partnership. Others agreed that Ukrainian politics was rotten, but argued that the Association Agreement and DCFTA was the best way to change that in the long run. An isolated Ukraine could easily grow even more corrupt.
The counter-argument that Ukraine will never transform itself unless the politics is right now looks vindicated. Having drawn such an obvious red line, the EU’s credibility is at stake. At the very least, Ukraine is guilty of poor communication if it still intends to compromise. But it looks like it is guilty of more, and more than was proven against Tymoshenko in court. Ukraine’s whole foreign policy future is now on the line. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.