Between Moscow and Berlin

KIEW/BERLIN | | ukraine

KIEW/BERLIN (Own report) - Berlin is threatening a boycott because of the continued detention of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko, a longtime ally of the West, has been convicted of abuse of power and is facing other criminal charges. She is complaining of torture and insufficient medical care in prison. The German government, which has been silent about accusations of torture and denial of medical attention in Ukrainian prisons, while Tymoshenko was Prime Minister of that country, is now declaring, "penal law" should "not be abused to curtail democracy and prevent opposition." This must be seen in the context of power struggles focusing on the country's future foreign policy orientation now taking place in Kiev. Berlin is worried that the Ukraine could ally itself too closely with Moscow, if important pro-western forces, such as Tymoshenko, have no role to play. According to voices in Berlin, a boycott of the forthcoming European Soccer Championships could be a means for pressuring Kiev, if it does not comply.

Visit Boycott

According to media reports, the German government is considering whether the chancellor or federal ministers should cancel their visits to the European Soccer Championship.[1] Not only the usual PR opportunities that accompany the appearance of high ranking dignitaries at sporting events would be missed, but it would also provoke a wave of negative media reports and new political tensions. German President Joachim Gauck has already announced the cancellation of his visit to the Ukraine in Mai. His Austrian and Slovenian counterparts have followed suite. According to the media, Berlin is demanding that Tymoshenko be immediately handed over to Germany for proper medical treatment, sparing her miserable prison conditions in the Ukraine, including deprivation of medication and abuse.

Ukrainian Seesaw Policy

Berlin's unusual attentiveness to how human rights are respected in Ukrainian prisons must be seen in a broader foreign policy context. Experts analyze that ever since the Ukraine emerged independent from a bankrupt Soviet Union in 1991, Kiev has sought to keep its options open in all directions, using a "seesaw policy between east and west."[2] Kiev would like to collaborate with the EU without losing its Russian cooperation options. Even though the governments over the past 20 years have more or less opted for one or the other direction, depending on the interest groups supporting them, they have never departed entirely from this "seesaw policy." This policy takes into account the overall Ukrainian economic interests, depending, on the one hand, on markets in Western Europe and profiting, on the other, from Russian energy supplies and networks dating from Soviet times.

At a Crossroads

Experts however, now see the Ukraine "at a crossroads."[3] On the one hand, Moscow is urging the Ukraine to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan while even suggesting a future possibility of joining the "Eurasian Union," with which Russia would like to unite as many ex-Soviet nations as possible. Moscow's power has grown in relationship to Kiev. Since the "North Stream" pipeline, bypassing the Ukraine, is delivering Russian natural gas to Germany, Kiev's influence on Russian gas exports has diminished, and therefore its means of exerting pressure. On the other hand, the EU's influence has also been growing. The EU recently reached an association agreement with the Ukraine, aimed at directly linking the country to the EU. If it is signed and takes effect, it could lead to the Ukraine's comprehensive - even though not complete - "disengagement from the post-Soviet economic zone," according to Andreas Umland, Kiev's Eastern Europe expert.[4] In the long run, EU ties could clearly predominate over contacts to Russia.

Factional Disputes

Fierce factional disputes are raging in Kiev, in this tense atmosphere. Even though the current governing faction around President Viktor Yanukovych, traditionally considered to be more pro-Russian, is pursuing a policy of EU rapprochement, it is simultaneously fighting the traditionally pro-Western faction around former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko and some prominent members of her immediate political entourage have been prosecuted and imprisoned and therefore cannot function as western political allies. Kiev is still refusing to submit to Moscow's demand to join the Eastern Customs Union and the planned "Eurasian Union." Observers, however, are debating allegations that the Ukrainian government has begun allowing more Russian influence in its military and intelligence service. According to reports, the new Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Dmitri Salamatin, holds Ukrainian and Russian citizenship and has family ties to Moscow's power elite. He had recently shown his dual loyalty, when he - as head of the Ukrainian arms export industry, which for years had been a competitor to the Russian arms industry - initiated a rapprochement to the latter. Igor Kalinin, the new chief of the Ukrainian intelligence service, SBU, is said to have close ties to Russian intelligence circles.[5]

Penal Law and Democracy

The West is strongly protesting the Yanukovych government's effort to exclude the more pro-Western forces around Tymoshenko. Even Western observers believe that the charges against Tymoshenko are not baseless. That "a business woman during the post Soviet years of banditry" had, for example, "evaded taxes and falsified documents" hardly seems "fabricated," writes the media.[6] One of Tymoshenko's closest partners in the 1990s, Pavlo Lazarenko, was convicted of similar crimes, particularly money laundering, and was sentenced to a long prison sentence in the USA. The German government's spokesman declared that "penal law" should "not be misused to curtail democracy and prevent opposition."[7] The German government is particularly criticizing the prison conditions and insufficient medical care of its close ally Timoshenko. For years, human rights organizations have been denouncing, the prison situation in the Ukraine, particularly the miserable medical care - but Berlin was never interested as long its Ukrainian contact persons held the reins in Kiev.

Prisoners without Medication

The press offices of major human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have provided numerous examples. Amnesty International writes in its 2009 report, that 165 complaints concerning torture and other ill-treatment were reported that year and criticizes particularly the "authorities’ failure to carry out effective and independent investigations into such allegations."[8] Already in 2009, Amnesty International criticized the fact that vital medication was withheld from prisoners in the Ukraine. Human rights organizations had been doing research on the Ukrainian prison conditions and were in contact with the authorities in Kiev. At the time, Yulia Tymoshenko was Prime Minister. "Because of tight financial constraints, prisons and prison hospitals are equipped only with most necessary drugs for the treatment of common diseases," was the reason given for the desolate supply situation, Amnesty reported later.[9] The organization estimates that in 2010 alone "more than half" of the 739 mortalities in Ukrainian prisons were due to a "lack of or improper medical treatment." The Kiev government carried the ultimate responsibility and Prime Minister Tymoshenko, with whom Berlin, at the time, had no problem cooperating closely, was in office until March 2010.

[1] Merkel erwägt EM-Boykott; www.dw.de 29.04.2012
[2], [3], [4] Andreas Umland: Das Beziehungsdreieck Ukraine-EU-Russland im Wandel; Ukraine-Analysen Nr. 98, 13.12.2011
[5] Russia Takes Control of Ukraine's Security Forces; www.jamestown.org 19.03.2012
[6] Ukrainische Folter; www.faz.net 24.04.2012
[7] Bundespressekonferenz vom 25.04.2012
[8] Amnesty Report 2010: Ukraine; www.amnesty.de
[9] Urgent Action: Häftling schwer krank; www.amnesty.de 21.02.2011