Along the midriff of Eurasia, an engrossing battle of wits may have begun that could phenomenally transform the post-Soviet space. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's recent call for forming a Eurasian Union now seems more like a prescient call of the bugle.
The seven-year sentence handed down on Tuesday to Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, by the district court in Kiev holds the potential to become a turning point in post-Soviet politics. Ukraine has always been the great fault line in Eurasian politics. The "Orange" revolution of 2005 made that abundantly clear.
How the endgame over the demise of the "Orange" revolution plays out in the coming months will determine a host of issues, which include Russia's integration processes in the post-Soviet space and the surge of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the territories of the former Soviet Union.
Tymoshenko has been found guilty of misusing her office as prime minister in negotiating Ukraine's January 2009 gas deal with Russia, causing the country an estimated loss of US$200 million. Judge Rodion Kireyev said, "In January 2009, Tymoshenko ... exercising the duties of prime minister ... used her powers for criminal ends and, acting deliberately, carried out actions ... which led to serious consequences."
The 51-year-old former prime minister has been ordered to pay the damages caused to the state and debarred from holding public office for three years after completion of her seven-year prison term.
But Tymoshenko is no push-over. Her trademark is her singular lack of any sense of moderation and that she never ever settles for a back seat. She has cried out that the trial is a political vendetta by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovich, which she promptly compared with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. She also lost no time shrewdly injecting a heavy dose of geopolitics into her case: "This is an authoritarian regime that is distancing Ukraine from Europe, while using European rhetoric."
Her strident words have found resonance in Western capitals. The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted within hours of the Kiev verdict: "The way the Ukrainian authorities will generally respect universal values and the rule of law, and specifically how they will handle these cases, risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship."
Brussels is particularly peeved, feeling somewhat cheated that Yanukovich might have conveyed a subtle hint that he wouldn't push the envelope against his political rival to a point of no return and now is claiming his hands are tied and he cannot interfere with the trial.
But then, Yanukovich is a shrewd politician and he would know that nothing is a final word in politics. He is still keeping Brussels on tenterhooks by hinting that an overhaul of the criminal code under which Tymoshenko was put on trial may be underway. On the other hand, he would also like to know what the EU could give him in return.
Yanukovich would have sized up that the Tymoshenko issue does not agitate domestic public opinion. The majority opinion in Ukraine seems to be that the charges against the iconic figure of the "Orange" revolution are probably justified. People know she is a billionaire child of the days of "wild capitalism" in the 1990s when in the debris of the Soviet Union's collapse and by exploiting the general lawlessness, Ukraine's newly rich made fortunes out of state property - often enough off Ukraine's import of Russian natural gas.
The apathy of the people toward Tymoshenko's fate underlines the public awareness that the "Orange" revolution was not a revolution at all, but in reality a game of musical chairs between Ukrainian millionaires and billionaires. The West thought it won Ukraine's soul while Moscow's able ambassador in Kiev, Viktor Chernomyrdin (former Russian prime minister and the grey cardinal of Russia's energy politics) probably had the last laugh - historically speaking.
Anyway, the loudest demands for Tymoshenko's release have come from the West. Apart from the EU and Aston, several European capitals have warned Yanukovich. Interestingly, the White House in Washington chose not to come down too hard on Yanukovich and instead demanded that the case be reviewed - signaling an exit door for him.
A poignant irony may appear to be that Moscow joined hands with the West. Which is indeed a smart move. After all, why should Russia allow itself to be seen as the permanent antithesis of the rule of law?
Leitmotif of Putin presidency
But, polemics apart, Moscow's stance is actually highly nuanced and it underscores the struggle for Ukraine's soul that is about to begin. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement says at the outset that Moscow "respects" Ukraine's sovereignty and the independence of the judiciary in that country. It implies that Moscow would accept Yanukovich's contention, if he chooses to do so, that he cannot undo a court verdict (which the West is demanding).
Secondly, the Russian statement claims that if the "leaders of many states and the world public" perceive that this has been a politically-motivated trial, it is because the 2009 gas deal as such was concluded in "strict accordance with the laws of Russia and Ukraine and the applicable rules of international law".
It then took a step aside and noted that there is an "obvious anti-Russian subtext in this story", which is what the West's calls to "remove the situation [of Tymoshenko] from the agreed legal field unilaterally" are all about. Moscow asserted: "The [Russian-Ukrainian gas] contracts must be fulfilled."
Moscow isn't sure of the road that Yanukovich may ultimately choose - to withstand or to cave in to Western pleas to release Tymoshenko from custody and dismiss the case by fiat. (Ideally, Yanukovich would like Tymoshenko to be mothballed and put away from contesting the 2015 presidential election as his opponent.)
The bottom line for Moscow is that the 2009 gas deal cannot be reopened and Ukraine will have to bear the burden of the market price for Russian gas, which fuels its economy and it cannot do without.
Any price concessions at this point by Moscow would remain linked to Ukraine's willingness to join the Customs Union with Russia (which also include Kazakhstan and Belarus). The anger and dismay in the US and Europe stem from their dilemma that Yanukovich, who although he appears as a newly-minted democrat, is open to backroom politics, and presenting him with ultimatums may only drive him toward Russia despite his relations with the Kremlin being cool.
Reacting to the verdict in Kiev, Putin, who is currently on a visit to China, ostentatiously distanced Moscow from Tymoshenko herself and indirectly questioned Western motives: "Tymoshenko is not our friend, and for me personally, she is neither a friend nor a relative. Moreover, she is rather a political competitor, because she has always been ... a Western-oriented politician."
But Putin warned that it would be "dangerous" and "counter-productive" to reopen the 2009 gas deal and pointed out that Ukraine and Russia would gain more by combining their efforts on integration projects.
In reality, he echoed his proposal for creating a Eurasian Union, which he first mooted in a signed article in Izvestiya merely a week ago. Putin said Russia-Ukraine integration would be "more beneficial, as they would yield economic benefits". He then repeated tactfully, "I am not speaking about politics."
The Eurasian Union idea promises to be the leitmotif of the Putin presidency that may commence in 2012 and may last until 2024. The closing of the door on Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization in the near term gives impetus to the idea of expanding the existing Customs Union.
But what would give the Customs Union real traction would be Ukraine's entry. If that happens, no matter what the rubric is called, an Eurasian Union is born. The tussle over Tymoshenko's fate goes way past a matter of rule of law and the legacy of a "color" revolution.