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A stagnant Ukraine struggles to see a way out

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KIEV, Ukraine — The counterrevolution is coming up short.

President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted from power in the Orange Revolution of 2004 but given a second chance by voters in 2010, has spent two years trying to re-create the “vertical of power” that has sustained his neighbor in Russia, Vladimir Putin.

The chief hallmarks — corruption, cronyism, vindictive use of the courts — are in place. But Ukraine is missing the wealth from oil and gas that has bolstered Putin’s government, and the cracks are not hard to find.

“Ukraine is not Russia, of course,” said Arkadiy Bushchenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

It was Ukraine that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union when it charted its own course in 1991, and it was Ukraine that emerged after the Orange Revolution as the country that was going to embrace Western values and Western ways, and in turn expected to be embraced by the West. There was talk of Ukraine in the European Union, even in NATO.

Yanukovych derailed that journey, but he has been unable to cement his grip on the country. Civil society organizations have pushed back. So, to some extent, has the news media. Opposition parties are in power in some regions. And, with October parliamentary elections on the horizon, Yanukovych’s hugely unpopular Party of Regions expects to get a shellacking.

Yanukovych’s one strong card is the widespread disgust with politics that extends almost as much to the fractious opposition as to him. And a loss of parliament, if it were to happen, wouldn’t bring down his government — he’s in office until 2015.

But it would turn up the heat. For the past 10 months, authorities have been easing off on the cruder sorts of crackdowns. Officials have quietly engaged in discussions with interested civic organizations on the question of reforms in several key areas.

“I can’t say it’s impossible to work with these guys,” Bushchenko said. “It’s not Belarus, it’s not Kazakhstan.”

But it’s not Western Europe, either, said Yevhenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of Yanukovych’s chief rival and Ukraine’s most famous prisoner, Yulia Tymoshenko. The discussions, she said, involve “pseudo-reforms with a thin veneer of European norms.”

Window dressing or not, the talks to some degree probably reflect pressure from Europe, which Ukraine can’t ignore, analysts say. Ukrainian oligarchs reportedly aren’t thrilled with the government, either. They’ve watched while Yanukovych’s family and cronies from the coal mining center of Donetsk have snatched up one business after another, usually with the connivance of tax authorities. The president’s son, Oleksandr, saw his net worth increase 18-fold after his father took office.

Isolation over Tymoshenko

But one question overshadows everything else. Yulia Tymoshenko was Yanukovych’s opponent on the streets during the Orange Revolution and at the ballot box in 2010, and now, with the upper hand, he has thrown her into prison, along with three ministers who worked in her government. Currently under guard in a hospital, she was convicted of misuse of office for a natural-gas deal she negotiated with Russia when she was prime minister in 2009.

“It’s crucial for them to have Tymoshenko in prison,” Bushchenko said. For Yanukovych, she is an obsession. Though he has said that in theory he would like to pardon her, he has also talked about bringing murder charges against her.

European leaders have denounced her treatment as political persecution, and there is a move in Congress to deny U.S. visas to officials associated with her case. Even Russia — which was Yanukovych’s sponsor against Tymoshenko during the Orange Revolution — has turned against him over the way she has been treated.

“The Ukrainian president is effectively isolated — isolated from the European side and isolated from the Russian side,” said Igor Burakovsky, who runs a think tank here called the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting.

Kiev is a graceful old city, spruced up now for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, but there is a faded quality to it that hasn’t been erased. A winding street that drops down the hill behind St. Sofia Cathedral was once full of galleries and cafes, but it’s mostly quiet now. Kiev no longer feels like a city on the make.

In March, the International Monetary Fund froze payments on a $15.6 billion bailout for Ukraine because the government failed to raise utility rates. It almost certainly won’t raise those rates before the elections — but Ukrainians know the hike is coming, and in the meantime the ailing economy is left in that much more of a fix.

A polarizing opponent

With her trademark blond braids, Tymoshenko was a deeply polarizing figure. Wealthy from gas dealings in the 1990s, she was distrusted by many. Her melodramatic approach to politics excited her followers while alienating an ever larger number of voters.

Yet by going after Tymoshenko, Yanukovych has managed to make her a deeply sympathetic figure among a broad swath of the population.

Her 31-year-old daughter, Yevhenia, now leads her defense, from a palatial, heavily guarded headquarters laden with green marble. Everywhere are giant photos of Yulia — smiling, listening, communing with her people.

Yevhenia Tymoshenko has urged other nations to impose visa sanctions on Yanukovych’s inner circle. Pressure applied where it hurts, she said, could cause the government to crumble. She warned that she wasn’t sure how much longer her mother’s health would last.

“We don’t see the way out for her, medically,” she said. “And we don’t see any opportunity for us to defend ourselves, legally or otherwise. Little by little, we get worried. It’s gone too far, and pushed Yanukovych into a corner.”

The time to act is now, she insisted, before Yanukovych finds a way to assert complete control over the country. “Our democratic institutions are weak. We’re not certain Ukraine can survive as a democracy.”

Yulia Tymoshenko was no champion of democratic reform when she was in office. She did nothing, for instance, to overhaul the deeply suspect criminal justice process.

If she had, points out Max Tucker of Amnesty International, she might well have gotten a fair day in court and avoided a conviction.

But Ukrainians have shown they have a short political memory. Once regarded uneasily by many as a demagogue, Tymoshenko now reminds Ukrainians of the promise the country seems to have lost — and of the vendetta-driven president who wields power.

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