Tymoshenko: from Iron Lady to Joan of Arc

The jailing of Ukraine’s former prime minister has sparked outrage on the streets of Kiev and a flood of criticism from Russia, the US and the EU.

­Yulia Tymoshenko was given a seven-year sentence for abusing her powers over gas contracts signed with Russia while she was premier.

She will also have to pay US $200 million in damages to Ukraine’s state gas company. The company, Naftogas, says it will use any money it gets from Tymoshenko to purchase gas from Russia.

The Ukrainian government says there is no link between the gas case against Tymoshenko and the renegotiation of gas contracts with Russia. 

According to Ukrainian PM Nikolay Azarov, the gas deal is “of paramount importance at the moment” which exists “by itself”, separately from other concerns.

The European Parliament is to meet on Wednesday for an urgent discussion of the controversial verdict. 

Earlier, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern and said he expected any further developments in the Tymoshenko case to respect the rule of law:

The Secretary-General has noted the concerns voiced widely regarding the judicial proceedings involving the former Ukrainian Prime Minister and other officials,” Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted Vannina Maestracci, associate spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon, as saying.  “And the Secretary-General expects the judicial proceedings, currently still ongoing, to be conducted in a fair and impartial manner and to follow due process,”she added.

RT’s Aleksey Yaroshevsky was in Kiev to witness the angry response as the verdict was read out.

Judgement day for Ukrainian democracy: the label given to Tuesday’s events by the opposition seemed apposite, when supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko tried to take to the streets in defense of the country’s vocal opposition leader.  Before being dispersed by the police.

Three months of non-stop protests culminated in scenes reminiscent of the Orange Revolution with tens of thousands on the streets. The tension was only broken briefly by the appearance of topless feminist activists.

The pressure was equally intense inside the court, especially after Judge Kireev’s verdict rocked Yulia Tymoshenko.

“The court has ruled that Yulia Vladymirovna Tymoshenko is guilty under article 365, part 3, of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, and sentences her to seven years imprisonment, and denies her the right to hold positions in government for three years,” Judge Rodion Kireev read out.  

Not so long ago, she was one of the most influential female politicians in the world. The conviction is the coup de grace of her long and spectacular fall from grace, and has naturally left Tymoshenko outraged.

“No authoritarian regime or its verdict will stop me. The trial showed that the Constitution and justice have been trampled underfoot. I urge you to begin the struggle. It's a very difficult and important moment. We have to protect Ukraine against the authoritarian regime. Don't give up!” was the response of the former Ukrainian prime minister to the verdict.

The prosecution claimed she abused her office over gas deals she signed with Russia in 2009. The accusation has caused raised eyebrows in Moscow, which insisted those contracts were completely legitimate.

“This particular case is highly politicized,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on Tuesday. “And the essence of the accusation certainly indicates that this has something to do with Russia and we can't except that a legitimate, binding contract, which remains in force, which was never legally challenged, could become a reason for the court decision with took place today.”

Europe also reacted skeptically to President Yanukovich’s assurances that the case was not politicized, and lashed out at Ukraine’s leadership. Analysts believe that Kiev will now find itself in a very difficult situation.

“Ukraine’s potential membership of the European Union is some years away and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise,” says Richard Howitt, British member of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. “But we do want the counties in Europe’s eastern neighborhood to get closer to Europe not just in terms of membership, but in terms of European values like the rule of justice. And this is clearly an extraordinary setback. And I do think it is quite possible that the invitation for President Yanukovich to come here on October 20th will now be withdrawn.”

Not only could this verdict backfire on Yanukovich, it could also benefit Tymoshenko, say experts. To her supporters she has become a martyr, a symbol of freedom-fighting. And she will not hesitate to use this Joan of Arc image – even if to do so, she has to wait seven long years.

Just hours after tensions peaked, calm has returned to central Kiev. But it is yet unclear whether Tymoshenko’s fate has been sealed, because analysts are now speculating over a possible presidential pardon for the opposition leader. But the crowds protesting at the jailing of their former premier say they will stay here for at least another week – whatever happens. 

Watch more in RT's special report.