In the musical, the Evita Peron character sings to Argentines: “I will return, and I will be millions.”
In Kyiv this week, Evita’s Ukrainian version, Yulia Tymoshenko, could have lamented: “I will return, and I will be thousands.”
Newspaper editorial writers waxed indignant over the guilty verdict and seven year jail sentence handed down against Ukraine’s former prime minister. But many Ukrainians did not seem to care about her conviction on the charge of abuse of power.
In November 2004, during the cold and dramatic days of Ukraine’s the Orange Revolution, Yulia, as she universally known here, drew crowds of one million people to Independence Square.
In a role reversal, her target then was her persecutor today, Victor Yanukovych, now President of Ukraine.
Fast forward seven years, and move only two blocks down Kyiv’s main street to the courthouse. At best, 2,000 people turned out Tuesday for her judgment day. In this city of 2.8 million people, that means one tenth of one percent of all adults turned out in her defense. For a politician who won 11.6 million votes in Feb. 2010, the depth of her support seems mighty thin.
In August, Yulia’s people blamed low protest turnouts on police allegedly stopping buses of supporters coming from the countryside. This week, hours after the verdict, her supporters announced the formation of the “Dictatorship Resistance Committee” and called for mass protests.
Don’t hold your breath.
I was in Kyiv last weekend, and everyone I asked seemed to have tuned out Yulia and her three month trial. Yevgeniy Kiselov, a Russian TV political host who has opted to work in Kyiv’s comparatively free media environment, told me that Yulia is scraping the single digits in the approval polls, and her negatives are sky high. About 70 percent of Ukrainian adults tell pollsters they will not vote for her in future elections.
One catty Kyivlyanka, or female resident, told me Ukrainians now can see through Yulia the way they also see the black roots of her hair showing after two months in jail. Her world famous flaxen blonde peasant braid is a dye job.
Given several chances to govern from 2005 to 2010, Yulia instead feuded with then-President Viktor Yuschenko. Thanks to that political paralysis, 46 million Ukrainians had to tread water economically for five years.
And don’t think that only President Yanukovych bears a grudge. Who showed up in court two months ago to testify against her? Her former co-commander of the Orange Revolution – ex-President Yuschenko.
Last February, I jumped through hoops to do a TV interview with Yulia. She proved to be the implacable Mistress of PR. Controlling shots, lighting, and language (only Ukrainian), she worked to shape her image for the masses.
As a backstage veteran of a Yulia show, it was fun to analyze her work as theatrical director of what was essentially a political trial.
First, she did everything possible to anger the judge, virtually forcing him to arrest her. With her jailing, her martyr aura could only grow and glow.
For Tuesday, verdict day, she crafted an image that was beamed into Ukrainian homes as television networks broadcast live from the cramped courtroom.
She arranged the seating so the cameras focused on her and her 31-year-old daughter, Yevhenia Tymoshenko Carr.
Her daughter wore a royal blue, figure-hugging turtleneck, presumably to keep the attention of male viewers as the judge droned on and on, reading his 51-page verdict. Together, mother and daughter bonded to form a portrait of female innocence and vulnerability.
Kept out of the picture was Yevhenia’s metal rocker husband, Sean Carr. Described by BBC as “a leather-clad and tattooed biker from Leeds,” Sean now parks his Harley at his new mansion in Kyiv. According to the BBC, Sean wowed Yevhenia with “the bone-shaking chords of his heavy metal band, Death Valley Screamers.”
Also kept largely out of the frames was Yulia’s bullet-headed husband Oleksandr, a well-built man who largely avoids the journalists after a legal unpleasantness a decade ago kept him in hiding for two years. As the court was adjourning, Oleksandr broke his vow of public silence and snarled at the departing judge a phrase that means, in effect: “You will get yours.”
But, with their men folk off camera, the mother-daughter pair presented a wholesome, almost angelic image.
The dramatic highpoint came when Yulia stood up and addressed journalists in the court as the judge was nearing the end of his reading. She recited an eloquent speech in defense of court system free of political interference. Then she veered into the future, appealing to TV viewers to ‘join hands” with her to build a new Ukraine.
As her hip daughter would SMS: OMG.
Oh, my God, but we just went through five years of that.
Outside the courtroom, the political theater continued. As the verdict approached, a group of her deputies tried to force their way into the courthouse, conveniently eliciting images of “police repression” for TV cameramen gathered outside the court.
The supporters at the street tent encampment seemed little changed from the ones I had interviewed in August. The hard core faithful waved photo shopped images of Ukraine’s Saint Yulia.
Then there were middle-aged guys, evidently angry over their loss of access to power. On Tuesday afternoon, it was these men who seemed the most upset. Russian TV aired again and again a clip of men trying to overturn a streetcar, pushing and rocking, pushing and rocking. In the end they decide it was, uh, too hard.
Unfortunately for Yulia, Kyiv’s riot police are also well schooled in the arts of political theater. At the end of the day, the total number of detained protesters was three.
Quite a contrast to televised riots we have seen this year in London, Athens, and Cairo.
Yulia’s conviction was for “abuse of power” — in this case an administrative error done in office. In many countries, this is not a criminal offense.
In Yulia’s case, she approved in January 2009 a 10-year gas supply contract with Russia. The Kremlin obligingly offered 1-year teaser of low prices during 2009 – the year Yulia ran for president. With the elections receding into history, prices charged Ukraine are now climbing above the levels that Russia charges Germany.
In a WikiLeaks cable, an American diplomat drily summarized the accord as “a good deal” for Russia.
Not a good deal for Ukrainians. But, hey, a politician’s career was at stake.
With the verdict, President Yanukovych evidently believes he is pulling off a master stroke in Ukraine’s rough game of political chess.
In one blow, he has taken revenge against his biggest political rival, besmirching her political CV with a guilty verdict. At the same time, he believes he has cast legal shadow over the gas pact with Russia.
But the Kremlin already sniffs a bid to use the verdict to annul the gas deal. Immediately after the verdict, Russian officials denounced the court case as “anti-Russian” and declared the 10-year gas treaty to be valid.
On the political front, it might not be so smart to knock out of the way his 50-year-old rival. Without her, a stronger, new generation figure may emerge, without the baggage of failed years as Prime Minister.
With Moscow, Brussels and Washington united in their anger over the trial and verdict, Yanukovych now is moving to defuse the West.
He has signaled that next week his parliamentary bloc will support a bill to decriminalize abuse of power violations. There would be no jail time, possibly no fine, and possibly no loss of political rights. Under this formula, he would have had the pleasure of humiliating his political rival — and have taken care of all those pesky democracy critics in Brussels and Washington.
But, this is a high risk gamble with the European Union.
Living in the Kyiv bubble, President Yanukovych and his advisors may not realize that the fabled “sick man of Europe” is not Greece, but the European Union itself.
First, the EU is still struggling to digest the ‘big bang” expansion eastward of the mid-2000s. This expansion essentially doubled the EU’s membership to 27 nations.
Then, there is today’s challenge: the Mediterranean belt of members, rudely referred to by their initials PIGS. These nations spent wildly beyond their incomes. Now they want northern taxpayers to pay their bills.
In this atmosphere, many European politicians are looking for an excuse not to take under their wing Ukraine, a nation the size of France, with the population of Spain, and a per capita income of Kosovo.
With the sentencing of his rival, Yanukovch may have handed opponents of EU expansion an excuse on a silver platter.