Her trademark wrap-around braid gone, her body covered in bruises from alleged mistreatment by prison guards, and her spirit seemingly weakened by untreated, debilitating back pain and several days of hunger strike -- the woman we've seen in the news this week barely resembles Yulia Tymoshenko - -the passionate, thoughtful and elegant leader of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine's 2004 nonviolent uprising against a corrupt election process and system.
That revolt, which led to the installment of decidedly pro-Western Tymoshenko as Ukrainian prime minister over the old guard, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, represented a "seismic shift Westward in the geopolitics of the region." It kicked off a period of great democratic development and hope, which many fear is coming to a very quick end, what with Yanukovich having barely defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, followed by Tymoshenko's cleverly-timed 2011 imprisonment after her "conviction" over "office abuse" charges.
While the Yanukovych regime had hoped for European complacency over her arrest, placing commercial interests over democratic values and whatnot, European leaders instead boldly threatened to abandon the Association Agreement that would put Kiev one step closer to European Union membership (and comprises a deep trade area and financial aid for Ukraine), as soon as Tymoshenko's verdict was handed down.
Since then, the European Union has been gradually stepping up its pressure on the Yanukovych government.
With recent reports over Tymoshenko's mistreatment and refusal of medical services in spite of attested illness surfacing, German President Joachim Gauck canceled a planned trip to Ukraine in mid-May, while other high-profile EU officials such as Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have announced their boycott of the Ukrainian leg of the UEFA European Football Championship hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine.
Reiterating the call for Tymoshenko to be sent to Berlin to receive medical care (Tymoshenko wisely refuses to be treated in Ukraine), German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle aptly captured European outrage on May 2 when discussing potential repercussions from the regime's treatment of Tymoshenko: "The Ukrainian government must know: The route to Europe leads over a bridge with two posts: democracy and the rule of law."
Tymoshenko's suffering has fueled outrage and action amongst her many supporters. An alliance led by her Fatherland party is currently garnering more support in opinion polls leading up to the parliamentary elections in October than Yanukovych's Party of Regions. Supporters are also imploring Tymoshenko to end her hunger strike saying that with her actions she has already shown that even "in the current government's dungeons [she] can fight for freedom and be stronger than this regime that is afraid of [her]," as they call on the international community to help Ukraine fight for "democracy and a European choice, for respect for human rights, for fair and democratic elections."
As the European Community and freedom-loving Ukrainians rally, one very important voice has been far too muted -- that of the U.S., which has no better friend in all of the former Soviet republics than Tymoshenko. Finally, this week, the Department of State released an embarrassingly tepid statement of support, but much more must be done quickly to help our ailing, persecuted ally. The world is watching. And waiting. Let us hope Secretary Clinton sees through the bureaucratic haze of Foggy Bottom to simply do the right thing. If the EU can be bold, certainly the US can as well.
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