By Alex Brideau
President Viktor Yanukovych's government will face negative political, diplomatic, and economic effects from the Aug. 5 arrest of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the accompanying legal proceedings. Tymoshenko was detained on contempt of court charges during her trial for overstepping her authority as prime minister in concluding the 2009 gas import agreement with her Russian counterparts, and for pressing the local gas company Naftohaz Ukrainy to sign the contract. She could face up to ten years in prison if convicted.
Protests against the arrest and trial won't represent a threat to the government's short-term stability, but the arrest will help the opposition unify ahead of next year's parliamentary elections. It will also reinforce EU and U.S. views that the cases against Tymoshenko and her allies are politically motivated.
Tymoshenko's arrest is symbolically important because of the strong political overtones of the charges. Despite government claims to the contrary, investigations over the past year into corruption and misuse of government power have overwhelmingly targeted members of Tymoshenko's government, some of whom are still important opposition figures. Yanukovych's Regions of Ukraine party, which saw its support in June sink to only 11.7 percent in one poll and 16 percent in another, remains concerned that Tymoshenko could lead the opposition against them in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. If convicted, Tymoshenko would be automatically disqualified by law from running in the election.
Ongoing protests could grow if Tymoshenko is convicted and sentenced to prison. Yet protests are unlikely to grow to a size that would threaten order in the capital. Opposition parties do not appear to have the strength to sustain protests against the detention, and Tymoshenko's popularity -- polls show her support between 10 percent and 16 percent -- do not guarantee a large turnout. Furthermore, many of the capital's residents are on their summer vacation.
The arrest will nonetheless provide a rallying point for opposition parties ahead of next year's election campaign. Opposition parties aligned with supporters of the 2004 Orange Revolution have been divided since the 2007 parliamentary election, but local sources hint that they may work to overcome their differences and the arrest would make it easier.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's reaction may have the biggest impact in the short term. Moscow is unlikely to be overly critical of the Yanukovych government. But Russian officials do appear worried that the Tymoshenko trial is also an attempt to delegitimize the 2009 gas contract, and part of efforts to force its renegotiation.
Tymoshenko's trial is proceeding quickly, and it could end within the next month. With political figures and foreign governments believing that the case against her is politically motivated, the verdict in her trial will be viewed as a barometer of the trajectory of the Yanukovych government. A conviction could further strain ties with the West (and with Russia -- depending on how the government uses the verdict in gas talks). Yanukovych's supporters, on the other hand, might see acquittal as a sign that the president's power is weakening, which would hurt internal cohesion in the Regions party.
Alex Brideau is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Russia practice.
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