When defendant Yulia Tymoshenko turned to Twitter to call her judge “a marionette in a gown who shrieks like a wounded bird,” the patience of Rodion Kirejev (the judge) ran out. On August 5 he sent the former Ukrainian Prime Minister to cell number 242 in Kiev’s Lukjanovka prison, angering not only her supporters but many world leaders.

Ms. Tymoshenko styles herself as a kind of postmodern incarnation of the passionate Joan of Arc, or of Berehynia, the beautiful fairy and mythical mother of the Ukrainian nation, and she has turned her trial into a reality show that scoops the front pages of Ukrainian newspapers and captures the attention of the world. The photogenic politician knows how to wrap the media around her little finger: she leaves her cell for the hearings dressed in an immaculate white dress with traditional tresses of her (real) hair wound round her head like a halo.

At first sight, the political trial of Tymoshenko could just be a sad confirmation of the gradual decline of democracy in Ukraine. But there is much more to it than that. On the eastern border of the European Union, against the backdrop of the drama within the European Union itself, an even more strategic battle for the future of the whole of eastern Europe lying outside the EU is being fought. Whether Ukraine with its nearly fifty million people will end up under the control of Russia or within the EU’s sphere of influence will settle the fate of the remainder of eastern Europe’s smaller countries, like Moldova, Belarus and Georgia. But the trial, whose verdict of seven years in prison was decided on long ago (according to Tymoshenko’s lawyers) and was merely to be announced in mid-September, has left both the EU and in Russia unsure of what they are dealing with.

Repeat of the energy chaos of January 2009

As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 1997, Ukraine is a key stage for Russia. “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Vice-versa, once Russia gets Ukraine back under its control, it becomes “a powerful imperial state spanning Europe and Asia.” That is why Russia is pressing President Viktor Yanukovich with such urgency to sign an agreement on a customs union. Although Yanukovich is close to Russia, he is not close enough to make him yield up Ukraine completely. To balance Ukraine’s relations with Russia, Yanukovich has made a “strategic choice” to pursue closer ties with the European Union, and at the EU-Ukraine summit in December he wants to sign a historic free trade agreement. But this is unacceptable to Russia, and Yanukovich is being told very clearly to choose one or the other.

This is the basic pattern in a chess game in which Tymoshenko is playing only a secondary role, even at full deployment. Paradoxically she has on her side her former enemy, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with whom she signed a contract on gas supplies as Ukrainian prime minister in 2009. It is this signature that she has been charged with, as Ukraine now pays more for gas than many a European country. Naturally, Putin defends Tymoshenko (and himself), expresses some anger with Yanukovich, and declares that the contract was entirely in order.

In prosecuting Tymoshenko, President Yanukovich has turned all his possible allies into foes. Analysts are struggling to grasp his motives, but not a lot of logic is to be found in them. One possibility is that Yanukovich simply wanted to get rid of his main rival from the last election – but this trial is only strengthening her position as leader of the opposition. Likewise, “perhaps” he wanted to test the limits of the European Union’s tolerance for his increasingly authoritarian regime. All he achieved, however, was to bring down waves of criticism from Brussels and the European states.

Whatever the motive for the Tymoshenko trial, its first consequence could be a repeat of the energy chaos of January 2009, when gas from Russia ceased to flow to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines and countries like Bulgaria and Slovakia began to freeze. Ukraine is now threatening to drag Russia before the International Arbitration Court in Stockholm in October because of the gas prices.

Europe will lose interest

Until recently, in any dispute with Russia Yanukovich could have counted on the support at least of the European Union, since the Association Agreement with Ukraine means a lot to the EU. But after the keelhauling of Tymoshenko in the political trial (and of other ministers of the government, one of whom has been sitting in jail without trial for almost a year) everything has changed. What “signal” would Europe send to north Africa and Belarus if, in this situation, it signed a cooperation agreement with Ukraine – a country that is “one of the worst worldwide in terms of business climate, corruption, has significant problems with democracy and rule of law, and is persecuting the former government?” asks German analyst Nico Lange rhetorically, quoted in the Financial Times.

The trial of Tymoshenko has put Yanukovich into an incomprehensibly embarrassing position, both abroad and at home. Ukrainian analysts agree that Tymoshenko has already come up smelling of roses, regardless of whether she is convicted or not. Her political star had begun to fade, and her All Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” party was polling less than ten percent. But she is now back on the scene, and the fragmented opposition has begun to talk about unification and has set up a joint Committee for Resistance Against the Dictatorship. In one year – October 2012 – the country will go to the polls in parliamentary elections.

Tymoshenko believes that circumstances, Yanukovich’s unreasonableness, and time, are all working in her favour. She may be right. But what is also certain today is that circumstances, Yanukovich’s unreasonableness, and time are working against the whole of Ukraine and its future in Europe. It may happen that Europe will lose interest in a country where even three successive free elections have failed to bring about democratic development.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer