We saw Mykola Tomenko the next day after Yullia Tymoshenko was convicted. He looked a bit weary, for he, together with other MPs, had kept a vigil at the encampment near the Pechersk Court (rumor had it that riot police were going to attack the oppositionists). The BYuT members decided not to take down the tents until the Court of Appeal had handed down a ruling. Yet Tomenko told us he did not support this kind of protest. “I am taking a dim view of these rallies, but if the decision has already been made, I, a teammate, should obey it,” he said. Tomenko shares the blame for the five years of lost opportunities and for he fact that we have fallen victim to an unreformed country. Here is the interview with Mykola TOMENKO, First Deputy Verkhovna Rada Speaker, member of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT).
“’HAWKS’ ARE TRYING TO BECOME ‘DOVES’”
Mr. Tomenko, did you expect a sentence like this or did you still hope that, under the pressure of the world public and Ukrainian society, the court would hand out a different ruling?
“We expected this kind of sentence in substance but not in form. It is unique when a court passes a harsher sentence than requested by the prosecution, although it must strike a balance between all the positions. I had heard about a seven-year term and 1.5 billion, but not about a three-year ban on holding public offices. This gives me every reason to assert that I was right in my previous assessments: in an inferior court (Judge Kireyev stuck to a prearranged plan that spelled out every detail), Tymoshenko must get a conviction that surpasses Yanukovych’s two convictions. They thought that Ukrainian society and the international community would more or less adequately accept this sentence and then they would be able to look for a way out of this situation. They mapped out what I think is a counter-productive strategy which assumed that, firstly, the president knew nothing of all this and, secondly, that the former president Yushchenko had begun all this. Incidentally, the role of Viktor Yushchenko was extremely important because Yanukovych often said, especially in foreign interviews, that Yushchenko was the first to doubt the legality of the 2009 gas deal and urge prosecutors to examine the matter. Besides, Yushchenko and [former premier Yurii] Yekhanurov were key witnesses for the prosecution at the trial.”
Incidentally, on The Day the sentence was passed Yushchenko announced he did not consider the Tymoshenko case politically motivated.
“He is perhaps the only Ukrainian politician who backed the authorities without waiting for the court ruling. At the same time, Our Ukraine, whose honorary chairman Yushchenko is, has categorically condemned the sentence. There’s something wrong here either with Yushchenko or with this party.
“But all these statements have failed to impress our society and the international community. We have received the results of a survey conducted by the Ukrainian Democratic Circle at the request of the Institute of Politics, in which 53 percent of Ukrainians said that the Tymoshenko trial was unfair (politically motivated) and 35 percent consider it fair. Conversely, when the trial began, the public opinion was more favorable to the authorities: 35 percent supported the government, 33 percent did not, and about 30 percent remained indecisive. In other words, it is clear today that society is sure that this trial does not meet the standards of unbiased legal proceedings. This also applies to the international community, except for offbeat Russian or European politicians, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who went on record for their not so positive attitude to Ukraine.
“Naturally, this sentence will create serious problems for Ukraine’s European integration and its perception as a European state. To tell the truth, from a strategic angle, it is not just a sentence to Tymoshenko, it is a sentence to Ukraine as a democratic and rule-of-law state. It is difficult to recall the time when the foreign media published as much negative information about Ukraine as they are doing now – perhaps they did so during the ‘Kuchmagate’ and the disappearance of Gongadze. But that tarnished the reputation of not so much the country as President Kuchma. We have so far positioned ourselves as by and large a democratic and Europe-bound country (especially against the backdrop of Russia and Belarus). But now we are in dire straits. The leadership has ended in a fiasco in three directions: the first, in positioning itself as a Ukrainian-minded government; the second, in the relations with Russia; and the third, in European integration. Even if the agreement on association [with the EU] is signed, I can see at least five countries that are not yet prepared to ratify it.”
Is there anybody in Yanukovych’s team, who opposed giving Tymoshenko such a sentence?
“I think this sentence was possible because the ‘hawks’ around Yanukovych wanted to show him that they are influential enough to do what he had dreamed of – to use the Tymoshenko conviction as a means to make up for what he suffered during the two presidential campaigns and to avenge his own convictions.”
What about the “doves?”
“I think the ‘hawks’ will now try to become ‘doves.’ Besides, Yanukovych himself will pretend to expect the sentence to be appealed or the offense to be decriminalized.”
“I HEARD ABOUT 15 YEARS FROM MANY INFORMED PEOPLE IN THE PARTY OF REGIONS”
How do you think the authorities are going to ride out this situation, with due account of the president’s statement?
“They have no choice. They will have to backpedal. But even if Tymoshenko is not in prison and takes part in the election campaign, Ukraine will still have a stereotyped image of a country that flouts the law. The leadership has two quite realistic ways out of the situation. The first, and the fastest, one is a second reading the decriminalization bill (the procedure allows amendments to be submitted before October 21). If the opposition makes a proposal to this effect at a reconciliation council meeting and persuades the Party of Regions to consider this bill, the latter may be discussed by the parliamentary committee in charge on Wednesday and be put on the vote on Thursday. In other words, it is quite possible to do so before October 20. Yet the government and we are taking somewhat different attitudes to the decriminalization of articles 364 and 365. We want to eliminate the very likelihood of political persecution, while the Party of Regions is proposing a narrower interpretation: they wish to present it as amnesty of sorts. In other words, Tymoshenko is guilty, but we are making concessions under the pressure of the Ukrainian and international public.
“The other way is to lodge an appeal. If the latter is rejected, we will go to the European Court and surely win.”
What made this conviction possible in Ukraine?
“The point is the government is doing its utmost to monopolize power. Moreover, the well-known thesis that Yanukovych and his team have come to stay for 10 years is sometimes at variance with what some people of their camp are saying or hinting. I’ve heard about a 15-year term from some well-informed ‘Regionnaires.’ So I have concluded that they want to organize work in a way that will allow Yanukovych to serve two presidential terms and then alter the Constitution and elect him in parliament for a third term. To do so, they need to eliminate the true opposition and replace it with quasi-opposition. This is why they launched the Tymoshenko trial. What is more, it is not only about the Fatherland leader but also about Lutsenko and other oppositionists (the story of Yevhen Suslov and his father). Very many businessmen who are seeking certain status even at a district level encounter intimidation on the part of the authorities. The latter are making an all-out effort to wipe out the opposition at all levels in order to calmly ‘reign’ for two or three terms. Yet things are getting worse for the government at a breakneck speed. Take, for example, the assessment of the president’s performance: in Match 2010 55.3 percent approved and 25.6 percent disapproved, while in October 2011 23.8 percent approved and 66 percent disapproved. This actually means that almost half the population of Ukraine has lost trust in the president. The Cabinet is in a still worse situation: only 17 percent approve of its performance.”
“UNITED RUSSIA SYNDROME”
In other words, you believe the opposition should go to parliament in separate columns?
“Everything depends here on the election system. If the system remained unchanged, i.e. proportional with a three-percent barrier, forming a single opposition bloc would be a real possibility. It is a fantastically hard way to go, but it could still be attempted. If there is to be a mixed system, as the government is now proposing, this will mean only parties will go. In this case it will be necessary to disband several dozens opposition parties and form a single party on their basis. It is next to impossible. So I think a mixed system needs a bottom-to-top movement: firstly, forming and educating commissions and, secondly, drawing a single list of the opposition in 225 first-past-the-post constituencies. The opposition is sure to win under the proportional system of elections, but it will only need a single list under the first-past-the-post system. It is single-winner districts that will help shape a new parliament. The opposition has a maximum program to compete for the majority in parliament and a minimum program to have over 150 MPs to be able to thwart changing the Constitution. Yanukovych’s rating is falling so fast that the 15-year plan may be replaced by a 10-year one, when Yanukovych will be elected in parliament for a second, not third, term because he may lose a nationwide election. I think the opposition should sign a document in two parts: the first will set out the rules of the game during the election campaign, and the second will lay down the principle of our work after the elections.”
Is it true that, when meeting Ukrainian governmental officials, European politicians always raise two questions: the Tymoshenko trial and the electoral law?
“Yes. And it is not only the Venice Commission but also European and American politicians and experts. But, in my opinion, the leadership’s current stand is that it is prepared to accept all the complaints and proposals of the international community about the election system except for changing the system itself. The Ukrainian leadership is saying it is our internal affair and you cannot interfere. But the question is far more serious: either they stay on in power after 2012 or they do not. So the leadership will be using all the available resources to change the electoral system.”
“THE ORANGE GOVERNMENT IS ALSO TO BLAME FOR THESE CONDITIONS”
Many believe that Tymoshenko is herself to blame for this whole story, for when she was in power, she did very little to reform the law-enforcement system, particularly, the courts.
“I agree that the Orange government is also to blame for these conditions. The point just is that in a presidential-parliamentary republic it is difficult to reform anything without the president. I will put it as follows: it is a joint responsibility of the politicians who won the 2004 presidential elections. It is our common mistake that such fundamental sectors as the law-enforcement system, the courts, and local self-government remained unreformed. We ourselves are also to blame for preserving the instruments that the current leadership has used. I can only say as an excuse that such a cynical legal procedure became possible after the so-called judicial reform: judges had not depended so much on the Presidential Administration under the previous system. I think even if the judicial system of the era of President Yushchenko and Premier Tymoshenko had been used against Yanukovych or anybody else, there would have been no trial like this.”
Yulia Tymoshenko said during the trial that the latter should not be an obstacle on Ukraine’s road to European integration. In particular, she called on European leaders to show political wisdom and sign an agreement on association and a free trade area before the end of the year. Do you still think this will be done or, as you have already said, the “Belarusian option” is also possible?
“We are still taking this stand. As for the ‘Belarusian option,’ the world may well show this kind of reaction because these events are also unexpected for them, all the more so after so many negotiations with and promises from Yanukovych. Bu we continue to believe that the Ukrainians and Ukraine’s European integration prospects should not suffer from a vindictive leadership.”
As is known, difficult negotiations are in progress with Russia over gas prices. Do you think the Tymoshenko conviction can be, as some people assume, an argument in favor of the Ukrainian side during the talks?
“I don’t think so because Russia is no way mawkish about any public figures in Ukraine. All it cares about is its national interests and the format of cooperation between Ukraine and Russia. In this case, too, they are only keen on defending their national interests, so the Ukrainian side will find it difficult to negotiate. In all probability, the Ukrainian leadership will opt for a trilateral gas transportation consortium or offer favorable conditions to Russian big business in Ukraine. If what Russia’s old-new president Putin said is anything to go by, Ukraine is trying to stay clear of the Customs Union or an updated Eurasian Union. So I would say the conviction of Tymoshenko has even further weakened the Ukrainian position. And Gazprom’s unwillingness to negotiate until after November only confirms this.”
It is widely believed that the conviction of Tymoshenko signals dire straits for your political party. Do you think you will be able to remain united?
“I have always said that all those who wanted to go have already done so. There have been enough conditions and preconditions for this. So there is no motivation now to take any radical steps. The only problem for us is how to work under a mixed system, taking into account that we have 102 MPs in the faction. Some people are not going to run [for a parliament seat] due to age, the intention to do business, etc. But we still have quite a serious faction that can work on its own. If you ask me whether there is a parliamentary faction that gathers every morning at 9 a.m. on a plenary week to consider the expert board’s proposals and then makes a collective decision about how to vote one bill or another, I will tell you our faction is the only one of his kind. Our faction always functions in a body of at least 60-70 MPs. Therefore, most of them would be good members of the next parliament, too. The main problem is how to coordinate work in parliament and in the constituencies. Besides, we have longtime partners, such as the Popular Movement, People’s Self-Defense, and the PRP, which are going to continue cooperating with us. We also hope that Tymoshenko will take part in the election campaign. We have never discussed the question of the party leader because, obviously, this problem has not yet come to a head. Our objective is that Fatherland with none other than Tymoshenko at the head should take part in the election campaign. I think when Tymoshenko is freed we will discuss a list-drawing mechanism that will keep us from making mistakes.”