Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, sure knows how to box himself into corner when it comes to dealing with his arch rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko is languishing in a prison in Kharkiv, north- eastern Ukraine, where she is serving a seven-year prison term, supposedly for abuse of office when she was in government. She has always claimed the charges were politically motivated.
Indeed, Tymoshenko’s supporters are convinced that Yanukovych wants to keep her in prison, and even break her health, in order to prevent her return to politics. Needless to say, Yanukovych’s advisors and supporters deny this.
Mrs. Tymoshenko, 51, is ill.
She refuses to be treated in a Ukrainian hospital or by Ukrainian doctors, because she fears they may be ordered by the government to harm her.
Now Tymoshenko has gone on hunger strike after prison officials tried to force her to a hospital. Last Friday, she was beaten black and blue and punched in the stomach, according to her lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko.
Henadiy Tyurin, the regional prosecutor of Kharkov, told reporters that officials did use some force.
"According to the law ... the prison service has the right to use physical measures. She [Tymoshenko] was picked up, carried to the car and taken to the hospital," he said.
This incident has created a big problem for Yanukovych, domestically and internationally.
Tymoshenko’s hunger strike is, against all the odds, galvanizing the opposition leaders into a united front.
They are the ones who in late 2004 brought about the Orange Revolution but then bickered so much among themselves that they threw away the good will of their own citizens as well as of Europe and the United States.
And Tymoshenko is becoming a cause celèbre in Europe where she is making the headlines.
All this is very bad news for Yanukovych. Joachim Gauck, the German President, announced this week he had cancelled his state visit to Ukraine, scheduled for mid-May.
Already, there are calls to boycott Ukraine in the coming weeks when it hosts with Poland the European Football Championships.
And German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are planning to attend a match in Ukraine, are expected to keep their contacts with Ukrainian ministers to a minimum.
This means Yanukovych urgently has to find some way to save face amid the glare of negative publicity. The question is how?
Somehow, Yanukovych failed to understand the need for quiet, diplomacy that would have helped end his dispute with Tymoshenko, a controversial, charismatic, and polarizing figure in her own right.
Anyone who knows Tymoshenko will confirm that she is no novice when it comes to political intrigue. After all, she made her career in a political culture that is known for both viciousness and corruption.
But Yanukovych seems to have believed he could sit it out by wearing down the resistance of Tymoshenko and her supporters, and of course relying on the cowed judiciary and security services to help achieve that goal.
If so, he miscalculated.
If Yanukovych now wants a way out of this crisis, without losing too much face, he will need the help of some European leader.
This is where Germany comes in. Germany was already working behind the scenes to break the impasse.
It was German doctors from the prestigious Charité hospital in Berlin who managed to visit Tymoshenko last February. The tale they told afterwards was of constant interference and hassles by the Ukrainian authorities, the security services and even the doctors.
There were absurd, un-Hippocratic discussions by Ukrainian doctors about where, how and by whom Tymoshenko’s blood should be analyzed.
Since then, as Tymoshenko’s health deteriorated, German diplomats suggested that she be allowed be treated in a hospital in Germany.
Yanukovych did not jump at the idea but he did not reject it outright either. Ukrainian officials say it would require some changes in the law because Tymoshenko is serving a prison sentence.
Taking Tymoshenko to Germany may indeed be the only way out for Yanukovyich.
If he takes it, the European Union will breathe a sigh of relief. Getting Tymoshenko to end her hunger strike and providing her with proper health treatment is important in its own right.
Even then, Yanukovych will have shown his colors. Europe has to know that there will be no going back to business as usual while this man continues to run Ukraine his way. It's time the EU heaped on conditionality.
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