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This article was published 18/10/2011 (3218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Yulia Tymoshenko's recent conviction won't be the first time the Ukrainian opposition leader is going behind bars.
She was first placed in pre-trial detention in 2001, charged with crimes that caused damage to the state while she headed United Energy Systems of Ukraine in the late 1990s. Those charges were dismissed several weeks later and Tymoshenko was freed.
Tymoshenko was next detained last August, when the judge presiding over the case into the natural gas deal she reached in 2009 with her Russian counterpart, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, found her in contempt of court.
Last week, Tymoshenko was found guilty in that case, sentenced to seven years and ordered to pay the equivalent of $188 million in damages.
That crime isn't the only one Tymoshenko has been charged with since losing Ukraine's presidency to Victor Yanukovych by three per cent in early 2010.
In December 2010, state prosecutors charged that she misused government funds obtained through trading greenhouse gas emission quotas.
Prosecutors also indicated they were investigating her government's procurement of ambulances for rural hospitals.
Two days after Tymoshenko was found guilty, investigators announced they were reopening an inquiry into Tymoshenko's dealings as president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine in the late 1990s.
Stubbornly defending his regime's obsession with Tymoshenko's crimes in the face of heavy criticism from the West, including Canada, president Victor Yanukovych -- who spent time behind bars as a young man for two violent crimes -- said that treating criminals otherwise would send a wrong signal to Ukrainian society.
Yanukovych's apologists argue that Tymoshenko's trial is a sign of the changing times. It's true, they say, that she and 77 members of her government are under investigation, but so are more than 500 government officials who have been caught abusing their offices since Yanukovych became president last year.
"The Tymoshenko case creates a precedent," wrote Konstantyn Bondarenko, director of the Kyiv-based Centre for Ukrainian Politics.
"From now on there are no untouchables... neither years of public service nor popularity with voters guarantee one from being accountable for committed crimes."
The argument that Yanukovych is cleaning Ukraine's house might begin holding some water if at least one of his oligarch cronies found themselves subject to the same scrutiny Tymoshenko has endured.
Yanukovych himself has lots to answer for in terms of personal wealth he and his family members have amassed during the decades of his humble civil service.
The argument that Yanukovych is merely out for revenge seems more plausible. That argument does not preclude another, namely that Yanukovych is as stubborn and smart as a mule. But at some point even Yanukovych has to realize that Tymoshenko was supported by 11.5 million voters to his 12.5 million in 2010, and that going after her may be just the thing required to split the country into two.
There is a geopolitical component to the Tymoshenko affair. Russia's Vladimir Putin recently advocated the creation of a Eurasian Union and lamented Ukraine's choosing the European Union. Putin's timing is impeccable given the problems in the Eurozone. If Yanukovych finds the doors closed in European capitals because of the Tymoshenko affair, then he might walk through the open door into the Kremlin, just like Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenka.
So what can Canada do? Some are calling for trade sanctions; critics fear they'll be largely ineffective because trade between the two countries stands at a mere $300 million per year. In much the same way, denying visas for Ukrainian officials won't accomplish much: only two Ukrainian ministers have visited Canada since Yanukovych came to power.
Others are advocating a more nuanced approach. They want to see Ottawa shift priorities for the technical assistance Canada provides Ukraine away from private-sector development and agricultural programs to focus on good governance and civil society projects -- particularly efforts to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, something Canada was actively involved in prior to the Orange Revolution.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next fall. Canada can send a large contingent of long-term observers in addition to those who will be fielded on election day, because the violations of democratic process have in the past occurred long before the ballots were cast.
Canada should be absolutely clear on the issue of full inclusion on the ballot: if Tymoshenko, for one, is prevented from running for public office, there need to be consequences.
And Tymoshenko is just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of other people who have been imprisoned for their politics since Yanukovych came to power.
In fact, human rights monitors are reporting an escalation of all sorts of abuses under Yanukovych, from deaths in police custody to censorship and curbing of free speech. These have all gone unnoticed in the West, because they're not as "sexy" as Tymoshenko.
When the parliamentary foreign affairs committee convenes on Thursday, it should seriously consider Canada's stance in the event that Yanukovych's ill-considered actions deepen the divisions within Ukraine and destabilize the state even further.
Last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was awarded the Ukrainian Canadian Congress' highest honour -- the Shevchenko medal. During his acceptance speech, Harper said Canada is very concerned and that Tymoshenko's sentencing "may have serious consequence for our bilateral relationship."
To use a classroom analogy, any negative consequences should be reserved for the bullies, and not the entire classroom. The schoolyard lesson that Yanukovych has failed to grasp cannot be overstated: When you pick a fight with a pretty girl, you always come out looking like a bully.
Stephen Bandera is a journalist who has returned to Canada after 12 years in Ukraine, where most recently he reported for the Kyiv Post.
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