Khreshchatyk Street. Kiev’s main drag, a soviet-era boulevard adorned with buildings in the neoclassical style so favoured by Stalin, is Ukraine in a nutshell. From a cobbled pedestrian zone home to Cartier and Bottega Veneta down one end, to a dusty government-run department store down the other, its tenants are an eclectic mix reflecting the economic disparity of a country marred by endemic corruption. However over the past few years, as the European high street has pushed further and further eastward, one block of Khreshchatyk Street has been colonised by the usual lineup of Euro and US fast-fashion. Unfortunately for these tenants, the block they chose to make home happens to be around the corner from the distinctively non-descript Pechersk District Court, the scene for the past three months of the trial of Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
From the commencement of the trial, a pro-Tymoshenko sit-in quickly set up base on Khreshchatyk Street’s wide footpath, taking up the entire block from Gap to Benetton. They were soon joined by government supporters, the sides beginning a loud-speaker face-off from morning to night. Camouflage-clad security forces were dispersed throughout, dozens of bored looking reinforcements waiting around the corner for any sign of trouble. Any illusion the government may have had that the trial of Tymoshenko could take place without the generally politically apathetic Ukrainians bothering too much must have been quickly displaced. For this wasn’t just the arrest of any faceless Ukrainian politician; it was none other than one of the most recognisable politicians of Europe, a strikingly elegant woman with an acute sense of occasion and a flair for the dramatic.
There is no doubt that the trial has been a strategic blunder, on both international and domestic fronts, for the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Tymoshenko, popular abroad due to her Orange Revolution credentials, immediately secured the support of the European Union and the US. Even Russia, the counterparty to the contract from which the abuse of office charges against Tymoshenko stem, chimed in to support her case.
Domestically, an already unpopular government, seen to be increasingly intertwined with the interests of key Ukrainian oligarchs, has managed to revive the flagging fortunes of a politician who was destined to become a marginal political force. Tymoshenko’s record as prime minister, a position she held for five years in an inherently dysfunctional coalition, was marred by the petty personal disputes between herself and fellow Orange Revolution icon, Victor Yushchenko, which largely paralysed the government and extinguished any good which the revolution had brought. Tymoshenko’s personal style, an Eva Perón-esque mother-of-the-nation image of immaculate cream suits and Chanel accessories, all in a country where corruption has seen per capita GDP fall to approximately half that of neighbouring soviet-style Belarus, seems to grate with many educated Ukrainians.
So what now for Ukraine following the handing down on Tuesday of a seven year sentence for Tymoshenko? No doubt the scratching of heads up at the presidential administration. Tymoshenko’s move to a Dnipropetrovsk penitentiary will be delayed to allow for a myriad of appeals in both Ukraine and abroad. And it seems that Kiev shoppers looking for a pair of Crocs on Khreshchatyk Street will have to pass through hundreds of protestors and state security forces for some time yet.