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Ukraine on the Edge

VIENNA – Seven years ago, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution inspired hope that the country was moving towards genuine democracy. Since then, democratic freedoms have been curtailed, the former prime minister and co-leader of the revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been imprisoned, and President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime has become internationally isolated. Ukraine is unraveling.

Today, a small group of oligarchs clustered around Yanukovych have captured power. They manipulate elections, control the media, and are shaping the country’s institutions to further their own business interests. Condemnation by the West has had no impact. So long as they control the country’s industries and natural resources, they will maintain their grip on power – the approach perfected by their role model, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Whatever one thinks of Tymoshenko, she was not imprisoned for any ostensible crimes she committed while in power. She is in prison because she lost that power. This sets a dangerous precedent, for it creates a powerful incentive – winner takes all, loser goes to prison – for ruthlessness.

It is difficult to predict how Tymoshenko’s case will play out – whether Yanukovych will succumb to pressure from the European Union and the United States to release her, or to the forces that want to exclude her from politics forever. Until recently, Ukrainian leaders were accustomed to more efficient means than prison for dealing with inconvenient opponents. In 2000, for example, the journalist Georgiy Gongadze was kidnapped and beheaded after publishing online reports about high-level government corruption. During the ensuing investigation, former Interior MinisterYuriy Kravchenko died of two gunshots to the head hours before he was to testify.