As TOL readers might have seen, the international pressure over Yulia Tymoshenko’s incarceration is starting to snowball. The outrage over the former prime minister might even touch one of Europe’s most sensitive areas – soccer – as EU bigwigs have been hinting that they are considering boycotting the main event of the spring: the Euro 2012 tournament set to take place in Ukraine and Poland.

That got me wondering if ordinary Ukrainians are registering all the international backlash or even following the Tymoshenko case anymore, what with all the hullabaloo over various accusations of mistreatment, her hunger strike, her disputed beating, and even her lawyer actually breaking into prison to visit his client.

According to a TOL contributor from Ukraine, Ivan Lozowy, people are still paying attention to Tymoshenko.
“Most believe that she did not get a fair trial,” he says. “This has all been very big news for some time now and even in the current restrictive environment Tymoshenko and her representatives have gotten lots of media attention and coverage.”

Tymoshenko also did a good job, Ivan said, in accentuating the flaws of her trial and creating the impression of political persecution.

In addition, a significant factor has been that she is a woman who, despite her steely character, looks somewhat fragile and this has given her lots of sympathy among the general public. Views of women are somewhat different here in Ukraine than in, say, the US or Western Europe and these “bully boys” of Yanukovych (just the visage of his primary prosecutor, Renat Kuzmin, speaks volumes) mistreating a woman, Tymoshenko, has provided her with much sympathy, which I’ve heard often from regular people on the street.

Indeed, when the Liga newssite recently published pictures of Tymoshenko’s bruises, most of the readers supported her in an online poll. Even though the poll isn’t, of course, a true sociological survey, the results are enlightening: 716 people believed that her beating was ordered by the country’s officials, a lot more than the 414 people who doubted that the beating actually happened. A total of 283 people thought the beating was the initiative of prison authorities, and 105 felt the opposition had a hand in the attack. Ninety-seven people thought the beating wasn’t really a beating, just an accident, and 78 people said they didn’t care.

Unfortunately for Tymoshenko, that sympathy has not, however, translated into broader support, as Ivan explained:

…When it became evident she would be sentenced to prison for an extended period of time, her political force called for a “total” mobilization of the population, but few responded. Demonstrations in her support have gathered, at most, several hundred people, a pittance. The reason is that Tymoshenko has been in power twice, serving twice as prime minister and the average citizen has not felt any improvement. She really doesn’t know what to do once in power, has a weak grasp — to put it mildly — of free market economics, in her own words enjoys running the country “by hand,” i.e. personally intervening to “fix” what is wrong, an unworkable approach in a country the size of Ukraine. The bottom line is that she is not a “solution” that people are looking for. The fact that she conducted secret talks with the Party of Regions at one point about joining forces does not help her cause. She has been reduced to a core of ardent supporters, which does not include any very prominent or charismatic figures. The average citizen does not see any hope for positive change coming from Tymoshenko and thus, although the prevailing attitude is clearly sympathetic and on her side this does not translate into specific support, even though the Party of Regions have themselves become deeply unpopular since Yanukovych’s election.

Incidentally, the PR war between the two sides, Tymoshenko and the PoR, received an interesting twist over the past week with the release of a video of her in her cell, walking around quite freely in her cell, then faking having trouble getting around when visitors show up, her daughter, then her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko. Some real “spice” was added when the video shows her entering into a prolonged kiss with Vlasenko. Most people, myself included, believe the video is probably real. It may well be that the Party of Regions was holding the video back so as to release it given an opportune moment and to draw attention away from her allegations of being beaten up.

Here’s the video, which appeared first on the website of a former aide to Hanna Herman, a media advisor close to Yanukovych:

Even with all the mixed feelings about Tymoshenko across the population, a mock presidential poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology gave her 10.8 percent of the vote. But that’s still only a little more than half of what the current president, Viktor Yanukovich, received (19.3 percent) – despite all his scandals.

But perhaps that’s not really that bad for someone currently in jail.

Image courtesy of Neeka’s photostream at Flickr.com.

Thanks to TOL intern Anna Shamanska for research for this post.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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