Throwing opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in jail was profoundly dumb, but sentencing her minister of the interior, Yuri Lutsenko, to four years was jaw-achingly, eye-poppingly dumber. After all, Tymoshenko actually posed a threat to President Viktor Yanukovych. She almost beat him in the last presidential election, and she would almost certainly have crushed him in the next one. Worse, as a self-confident woman, she undermined his desperately fragile male ego. To be sure, jailing her also subverted Ukraine’s chances of moving toward Europe and exposed it to Russia’s predations—strategic considerations that most leaders would have acknowledged as trumping the frailty of their personalities—but at least her imprisonment served some of Yanukovych’s immediate interests.
Nothing of the sort can be said about Lutsenko’s imprisonment. First, his trial was even more of a farce than Tymoshenko’s. Second, the charges were so manifestly petty and stupid—helping his driver financially—as to make even the most fierce of his critics cringe. The anti-Ukrainian Regionnaire apologist Oles Buzyna, for instance, observed Lutsenko’s behavior at the trial and concluded that “The clown became a martyr and a victim. As well as a hero.”
Third, Lutsenko posed absolutely no threat to anybody. He was never going to challenge Yanukovych, and he was highly unlikely ever again to become a minister after his dismal performance in Tymoshenko’s cabinet. At most, he would have become a fringe politician, able to appeal to and mobilize a few thousand followers. There are scores of wannabe leaders like that in Ukraine and one more would have made no difference to Regionnaire rule.
Fourth, only a dolt could believe that his sentencing will scare Ukrainians. Regionnaire legitimacy is nil, Yanukovych’s popularity is approaching nil, popular anger is enormous, approaching the explosive range, and societal mobilization—whether of students, miners, veterans, entrepreneurs, writers, or human rights activists—continues unabated. Quite the contrary, sentencing Lutsenko will only make people angrier.
Fifth, freeing Lutsenko would have cost nothing and brought possibly significant dividends. Lutsenko became a martyr, victim, and hero—in a word, a symbol—after he was sentenced. Releasing him on some technicality would have led to some gloating by the democrats, but only briefly, inasmuch as Lutsenko was washed up and not yet a symbol. Indeed, had the Regionnaires been smart enough to free him, they could have claimed to be magnanimous, fair, and just. Most Ukrainians would have seen their self-righteous stance for what it is—bunk—but some might not have, and when you’re down to single digits in popular support, every person counts.
Sixth, and most important, not sentencing Lutsenko would have enabled the Yanukovych regime to suggest to the Europeans that it was changing its way, that it was going straight, and that the Tymoshenko verdict was an unfortunate aberration. Like Ukrainians, Europeans aren’t as dumb as the Regionnaires think they are, but the signal would have been loud and clear, and it could not have been ignored in Brussels. Had the Regionnaires really been smart, they could even have hinted that the Lutsenko case was a foretaste of things to come with respect to Tymoshenko. At the very least, such a gesture would have won the Yanukovych regime a bit more time and breathing space.
Instead, the Yanukovych people decided to act against their own interests. Having shot themselves in one foot with Tymoshenko, they proceeded to shoot themselves in the other foot with Lutsenko. Not accidentally—but purposefully, after carefully taking aim and pulling the trigger.
Such suicidal behavior bespeaks either a complete breakdown of coordination within the regime, or complete incompetence, or complete stupidity. As I’ve suggested on a number of occasions, all three outcomes are intrinsic features of Sultanistic regimes that centralize too much power in a poor leader.
Tymoshenko commented on Lutsenko’s sentencing with the following words:
Their end will come and it will come soon. Their infamous end will not come from abroad, but from within Ukraine: from Lviv and Donetsk, from Odessa and Poltava, from Chernihiv and Kharkiv. Today we are behind bars. But if that is the price we must pay to free the country, then we are willing to pay it. Yuri, I know, will agree with me.... Till we meet again in freedom!
This is the language of martyrs, victims, and heroes. If the Regionnaires weren’t so narrow-minded and so dumb, they’d know that, in today’s day and age, you can’t beat Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Vaclav Havel. You can imprison them and you kill them, but you can’t beat them.
Photo Credit: Влада Ярославська