Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's 'Show Trial'

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Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko outside the Prosecutor General’s Office in Kiev, Ukraine on May 24, 2011 Sergei Chuzavkov / AP

Nostalgia for the Soviet past is nothing new in certain quarters of the former U.S.S.R. But the ongoing show trial in Kiev of Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister, is providing a dark new twist to the theme. Ever since the U.S.S.R. collapsed, businessmen and politicians have sought to breathe new life into various Soviet practices, usually with harmless, if kitschy, results. Oligarchs decorate their Danish-modern offices with socialist-realist paintings of Stalin dressed in the white ice-cream-vendor uniforms he favored. Mothers dress their children in retro uniforms of the Young Pioneers, the communist version of the Boy Scouts. A restaurant in St. Petersburg used to run endless newsreel clips of my great-grandfather Nikita Khrushchevmaking speeches or inspecting new-model tractors.

Tymoshenko’s trial, however, marks a new low. A post-Soviet state is bringing back to life one of the bedrock innovations of Soviet repression: the political show trial. Of course, the 2003 arrest and subsequent conviction of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia is sometimes called a show trial, but it was, like so much else in Putin’s Russia, a corrupted version of laws the country had adopted since communism’s demise (in Khodorkovsky’s case, on tax evasion), not a return to Soviet ways.

In Tymoshenko’s trial, however, many elements of Stalin’s grotesque legal charades are present: a near-hysterical prosecutor, a compliant judge, a ruler who washed his hands of the affair like Pontius Pilate. Tymoshenko may not be exactly squeaky clean—she made a fortune in the shady world of gas trading in the 1990s, for which she faced criminal charges in Russia. But then again, no one in post-Soviet politics is.

Certainly not Ukraine’s president and Tymoshenko’s mortal political rival Viktor Yanukovych, who spent time in jail as a youth for assault. But the charges against Tymoshenko for “economic crimes” stem from a criminal code that goes back to Khrushchev’s time as the U.S.S.R.’s leader. She is accused of profiting from a contract she negotiated with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to preserve the flow of natural gas to Ukraine and Europe in January 2009. As a result, Ukraine now pays the full European price for Russian gas, putting an end to decades of subsidies. Prosecutors allege that Tymoshenko was bribed by the Russians to betray her country’s interests.

Tymoshenko’s defenders say that President Yanukovych is trying to deflect popular anger at high energy prices by scapegoating the former premier.

The only thing missing to make it a true facsimile of a show trial is a penitent defendant. Back in Stalin’s day, political enemies such as Nikolai Bukharin were tortured by the secret police to the point that they admitted their crimes and publicly begged for punishment. Yanukovych surely never believed that Tymoshenko would follow suit and meekly condemn herself.

Instead, despite the court and the law being stacked against her, she has waged a spirited defense that has not only united Ukraine’s fractious opposition behind her, but also spurred the usually see-no-evil European Union into issuing strong condemnations of the affair.

A verdict is due on Oct. 11. Thanks to EU pressure, Yanukovych may hesitate to actually permit the court to convict and imprison Tymoshenko.

EU leaders have made clear that a new Free Trade and Association Agreement now being negotiated between the Union and Ukraine will never be ratified by all 27 EU parliaments, let alone the EU Parliament in Brussels, if Tymoshenko is jailed and banned from politics. Yanukovych’s oligarch allies are desperate for the EU deal to go through because it will help them invest outside Ukraine, move funds around the EU, and hence legitimize their fortunes.

But it is not only Tymoshenko’s fate that is now in the balance. The judge and prosecutor at her trial must also be uneasy. Most of the men who did Stalin’s dirty work in the purge trials of the 1930s, as well as the prosecutors and judges of the other great show trials of the communist era, came to a grim end. Genrikh Yagoda, the people’s commissar for internal affairs who organized the first great purge trial of party members in August 1936, was himself arrested, given a show trial in March 1938, then immediately executed. His successor, Nikolai Yezhov, faced exactly the same fate. He was one of Stalin’s bloodiest hatchet men but was sentenced and executed in February 1940.

Ukraine, unlike the U.S.S.R. or, for that matter, today’s Russia, is a democracy—albeit a highly chaotic one. And unlike Russia’s new tsar, Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych in time can and will be voted out of office. Changing political winds are seldom kind to the ancien régime’s executioners. In newly communized Czechoslovakia in 1952, Prosecutor General Václav Ales oversaw brutal political purges and the trials and executions of Rudolf Slansky and 10 other dissident Czech communists. Soon after, partly in reaction to the brutality of the purge, liberals came to power and began their brave experiment with “socialism with a human face,” which was to end so tragically on the streets of Prague in August 1968. Ales himself was purged from the party and lived out his life in disgrace.

Given this history, Tymoshenko’s judge Rodion Kireyev and prosecutor Oleksandr Mykytenko should probably be worried about what the future holds. All the more so because there is every sign that Yanukovych is readying to hang them out to dry. The president’s spokesman announced recently that Yanukovych was supposedly annoyed that charges were brought in the first place, “without the president’s knowledge.” Indeed, should a guilty verdict and prison sentence be imposed, it’s likely that Yanukovych and his government will do all they can to distance themselves from the judge and prosecutors. Physical death may not be in the offing, but career death may well be. The long-running political vendetta between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko that has poisoned Ukrainian politics for years should not be allowed to poison the free-trade agreement with Europe on which Ukraine’s future rests.

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