The Trial of Yulia Tymoshenko. Or, How to Paint Yourself Into a Corner
Orest Zakydalsky, Freelance Researcher and Analyst
In 400 BC, Sun Tzu wrote perhaps the most profound sentence about how to win conflicts – “The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak.” If anyone in the Yanukovych administration had bothered to read the works of the great Chinese strategist, they could perhaps have discouraged the president and his colleagues from putting Yulia Tymoshenko on trial. For the Yanukovych regime has made a fundamental error – they have struck what is strong.
“The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak.”
It has been obvious for a long time that Tymoshenko’s biggest strength as a politician is her charisma and her oratory. Where she has always been weak is in policy and her own dubious record in both business and government. But by putting her on trial the Yanukovych regime played to her strength. Tymoshenko’s strategy from the first day of her trial was to use her considerable oratorical skills to turn the trial into a kind of theatre, where she plays the crusading oppositionist fighting alone against the might of the corrupt state and its authoritarian president. She’s been successful in accomplishing this. She has rightly ascertained that there is no respect among the citizenry for Ukrainian courts or the Ukrainian justice system, and made this the cornerstone of her defense. Her daily verbal harangues of the inexperienced and, frankly, somewhat inadequate judge Rodion Kireyev leave him exasperated; several times he has lost control of his temper. The heavy-handed tactics that the Gryphon special forces use against MPs from her Bloc only exacerbate the image of a state-sponsored political trial. It got so bad that the court finally had to rule to stop live broadcasting of the proceedings; this, however, has changed little, since journalists can still attend the court sessions, and information about what is happening there is freely available.
If the goal of the trial was to finally destroy Tymoshenko’s political career, the regime has failed miserably. They have not only significantly improved her ratings, they have also painted themselves into a corner – no matter what they do next they will come out looking bad, and she will come out looking good. They have several options, each worse than the next –
1. They can find her guilty and put her in jail. She would then be unable to campaign for parliament in 2012 (which, I suspect, was the goal from the beginning). This course would, however, be viewed in Ukraine and the rest of the world as political revenge and would further isolate the Yanukovych regime.
2. They can find her guilty and suspend her sentence. This would prevent her from standing in the election for parliament, but wouldn’t prevent her from campaigning. She could then easily make the campaign about the human rights, free speech and corruption record of the regime and the Party of Regions. Her own “guilt” would only help her party’s ratings.
3. They can acquit her. While this option would certainly improve the regime’s image abroad, within Ukraine it would make the president look weak and ineffectual to his supporters, and would do nothing to win over his detractors. It would further strengthen Tymoshenko – who could then campaign as the only leader who can fight and beat the oppressive, corrupt system and the despotic president
I believe that the regime will choose the first option; this will, however, have serious consequences. It will show once and for all that the Yanukovych administration is committed to building an authoritarian Ukraine. Perhaps most dangerously for Yanukovych, it will have the effect of uniting the opposition, now fragmented, around Tymoshenko, much the way Kuchma’s attempted authoritarianism united the opposition around Yushchenko.