International observers agree that Yanukovych won the 2010 poll fairly, amid voter disillusionment.
However, since then, his critics say, he has embarked on a surprisingly rapid program of de-democratization: Centralizing power, subverting the constitution and selectively prosecuting his political enemies. Ukraine’s once vigorous media has become less free. State TV now uses the same wooden Soviet formula as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with Yanukovych shown seated solemnly across a desk from his prime minister.
EU diplomats say that in many respects, Ukraine’s problems are little different from those of other post-Soviet states. However, what incenses Brussels is Yanukovych’s extraordinary personal attack on Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years for abuse of office. Observers say the court case against her was politically motivated — its aim to remove her from the game ahead of Duma elections this autumn and the next 2015 presidential poll.
Tomas Valasek, the director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform puts it like this: “When one sees that five former ministers of the previous government are in jail, but people who are certainly equally corrupt or who are closer to the current government are not being persecuted, I’m sorry, that’s not justice, that’s vengeance. That’s the EU’s main problem,” he told Kiev’s Day newspaper.
Kiev has pursued what it calls a “multi-vector” foreign policy, in effect playing Moscow and Brussels off against each other. The Kremlin wants Ukraine to join a customs union; Yanukovych has so far resisted. However, the Euro 2012 fiasco leaves him isolated and weak, forced to look eastward rather than westward.
Olexiy Haran, one of Ukraine’s top political scientists, says that someone appears to have persuaded Yanukovych that putting Tymoshenko in jail was a good idea: “From a psychological point of view he has a desire for revenge. Yanukovych also fears Tymoshenko. And he wants to show he is master in the country.”
“Someone has played his feelings very well,” he said.
Who might that be?
“Russia’s security services. Or Russian lobbyists close to Yanukovych,” he said.
“Yanukovych is inexperienced in international relations. He doesn’t understand how the EU works,” Haran said.
Ukraine’s president might still be persuaded to release Tymoshenko and allow her to travel to Germany for medical treatment, Haran said.
However, Haran added: “From a rational point of view, he needs to restore relations with the EU, but it is difficult now for him to back down.”
It is also too late to move Ukraine’s matches to Germany, a scenario some German politicians have fancifully suggested. A dome in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti — the scene of Ukraine’s 2004 tent revolution — has already been transformed into a large soccer ball; just down the road along Khreshatik, the capital’s languid main avenue, a digital clock counts down the 36 days to kick off.
Ukraine’s government has responded slowly to the crisis, which worsened last week after photographs emerged of Tymoshenko covered in bruises. On Wednesday, her daughter Eugenia said prison guards had punched her in the arms and stomach. Ukrainian prosecutors say she injured herself. Yanukovych has so far said nothing.