Tymoshenko hunger strike a political football for Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews May 3, 2012

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

Jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's hunger strike could escalate into an international crisis as she fights major new charges being brought against her.

Hunger strikes impact health in a major way after four weeks and can cause death after two months. By the time the Euro 2012 football championships kick off on June 8 - to be co-hosted by Poland Ukraine - Tymoshenko will be in the sixth week of her hunger strike and presumably in a severely weakened state of health. Ukrainian authorities may force-feed her, Tymoshenko has said, but this will simply pile fuel on the scandal.

Tymoshenko's family are already sounding the alarm. Her daughter Evgeniya Carr in a statement May 2 on her mother's website said: "Mum's hunger strike is in its 12th day. We are very concerned about the state of her health. Now it's holidays and we cannot visit her and don't know what could happen to her during this time."

Diplomatic pressure on Ukraine snowballed on publication of apparent images of bruising to Tymoshenko's stomach and arms, after she was forcibly hospitalized for back treatment April 21. An increasing number of European politicians, first and foremost German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Barroso, have said they will not attend any of the tournament's games held in Ukraine after publication of the pictures and Tymoshenko's claims she was beaten.

But an obviously emaciated, even dying Tymoshenko juxtaposed with the opening of the Euro 2012 football extravaganza would cause a scandal of a different dimension. Indeed, it is difficult to see the tournament going ahead as planned if Tymoshenko sticks to her hunger strike. The question is whether she wants it enough to go the distance?

Question of life or death

Tymoshenko is saying her decision to go on hunger strike is a protest against the alleged beating she received from prison guards. But major new charges facing her could more than double her current sentence, and combined with the crucial window of international media coverage that Euro 2012 will provide, may be the deeper reason behind the escalation.

The new charges facing Tymoshenko are potentially far more damaging to her domestic and international reputation than the "technical" offence she is currently serving time for, which is "exceeding her powers" when ordering the signing of gas agreements with Gazprom in 2009. She is due to stand trial on charges of embezzling $405m of state funds when she headed a murky gas trading business United Energy Systems of Ukraine in 1995-97. The company was widely regarded as patronized by Ukraine's prime minister at the time, Pavlo Lazarenko, an associate of Tymoshenko's from her home region of Dnipropetrovsk. Lazarenko is currently serving a nine-year sentence in the US on money-laundering charges, following his arrest in 2000 and sentencing in 2006.

It seems highly likely, given Ukraine's loaded justice system, that Tymoshenko will be found guilty of these charges. And other charges of further financial abuses from the 1990s are also in the pipeline, according to statements by the general prosecutor's office.

Even more threatening, the general prosecutor's office is investigating alleged links that Tymoshenko had to the assassination in 1996 of a rival gas trader Yevhen Scherban. Deputy general prosecutor Renat Kuzmin has been quoted as saying that payment to Scherban's killers was transferred from accounts controlled by Tymoshenko at the time.

Faced with these charges, and the lengthy sentences they would bring, Tymoshenko thus seems to have plenty motivation to escalate the conflict with the administration of her political rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, even at risk to her health, by turning both Euro 2012 and her body into political footballs.

Blasts from the past?

Adding to international and domestic nervousness, four bombs were detonated at public places in the city of Dnipropetrovsk on April 28, injuring tens of people. Despite the injuries, the bombs seem to have been more for show than effect. But, coming only weeks before the opening of Euro 2012 championship in Ukraine, the bombs sparked a splurge of international media coverage, and have added to the sense of political crisis.

Conspiracy theories are swirling, with Tymoshenko ally deputy speaker of parliament Mykola Tomenko even indicating the government could be behind the bombs. "I don't rule out that the authorities and law enforcement bodies may be among the organisers of a scenario, which involves deflecting the attention of the world and Ukraine from Tymoshenko's case on the whole and her beating in particular," Tomenko said in a statement on Tymoshenko's website.

Law enforcement officials have been quick to play down any political context. According to media reports, the prosecutor general's main theory is that the bombs were the result of a war between criminal clans. "There is a war going on between local business groups which are still linked to criminals," Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta quoted an anonymous SBU official in Dnipropetrovsk as saying May 2. "Two weeks ago, influential businessman Gennady Akselrod was killed, who was accused of multiple instances of corporate raiding... so there is every reason to believe these terrorist acts have no connection to politics."

Linking the bombs to the murder of Akselrod may, however, not be as apolitical as it sounds. Akselrod was a prominent member of the Dnipropetrovsk business elite, one of the most powerful groups in Ukraine, including major companies such as Privat Bank and Ferrexpo regarded as supportive of Tymoshenko. Dnipropetrovsk interests are believed to be currently under pressure from the Donetsk clan that makes up much of the government and parliamentary majority.

Akselrod's close friend and business partner, Gennady Korban, in a wide-ranging interview published in Ukrainskaya Pravda on the subject of the assassination, showed copies of police files on him and Akselrod and other members of the group detailing alleged links to organised crime, meaning they themselves could come under investigation for the murder of Akselrod.

But in the grief-stricken interview, Korban pointed the finger at none other than Pavlo Lazarenko - Tymoshenko's former patron - as having ordered the killing of Akselrod, due to a past business dispute. Korban went on to fully back the state prosecutor general's assertions that Lazarenko was behind the killing of Scherban in 1996, as well as other gangland killings in the 1990s. On the question of Tymoshenko's involvement in Scherban's killing, Korban said that he greatly doubted she personally had anything to do with it, but that Lazarenko may well have asked her to transfer money for him.

Thus the SBU's decision to follow the Dnipropetrovsk trail in the bomb case may yet have unexpected implications for Tymoshenko's case - and turn out to be a lot more political than first appears on the surface. The escalation of the Tymoshenko conflict looks set to make for an uncomfortably hot summer in Ukraine.

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