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Kennedy Op-Ed: Tymoshenko Trial Tests Ukrainian Democracy

October 21, 2011

The recent sentencing of Orange Revolution leader and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is cast in light of national and regional politics in an op-ed published this week by Michael D. Kennedy, professor of sociology and international studies at the Watson Institute.

Titled “An Ex-premier’s Plight and the Future of Ukrainian Freedom and Democracy,” Kennedy’s commentary in the Providence Journal comes after Ukraine’s criminal justice system sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for exceeding her political authority in office during negotiations of a natural-gas deal with Russia. 

But Ukraine’s courts are widely seen to be politically controlled, Kennedy says, so that current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will actually be the “bigger loser” in the case. “He may have just lost the chance to recover his democratic reputation.”

When the dust has settled, Ukraine itself “could very well be the biggest loser,” Kennedy says. He points to Yanukovych’s moves to strengthen trading ties with Russia while avoiding European Union pressures to reform as part of an EU integration process.

The scenario plays out against a checkered past. Yanukovych won the 2004 presidential elections, but the outcome was overturned in the so-called Orange Revolution after allegations of fraud. Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were hailed as the heroes of that revolution, and became president and prime minister, respectively. But Kennedy writes their relationship “soured” while in office and their combined leadership “was not what it could have been” – and last year, Yanukovych overturned the revolutionaries, winning back the presidency.

While last year’s election could be seen as further consolidating democracy in Ukraine, the events of recent weeks instead have brought the country under criticism, as “most in the West castigate democracy’s caricature in Ukraine, where the legal system is used in political contest,” Kennedy says.

The country’s judiciary is “not independent, and is subordinated to Mr. Yanukovych and its allies,” he writes. 

Kennedy calls on Yanukovych to live up to the promise of democracy in Ukraine. At the same time, he calls on EU leaders to “find a way to pressure Ukrainian leaders without setting back Ukrainian reform and integration with Europe.” 

Kennedy, who recently returned from the YES Yalta conference in Ukraine, is the author of Cultural Formations of Post-communism: Emancipation, Transition, Nation, and War (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)