KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The seven-year prison term handed down to Ukraine's former prime minister highlights the stark choice faced by President Viktor Yanukovych: Does he turn the country east or west?
Twenty years after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, does he end the experiment with democracy and send opposition politicians like Yulia Tymoshenko to languish in jail, or does he embrace Western values and allow political competition and the rule of law to thrive?
Freeing Tymoshenko, a possibility raised by the president himself, would speed up Ukraine's integration with the European Union, which harshly condemned Tuesday's verdict.
But deepening ties with Europe would likely lead to economic hardships as an angry Russia would refuse to sell its natural gas at a discount, leaving Yanukovych with millions of impoverished Ukrainians squeezed by higher gas bills ahead of elections next year.
Tymoshenko, the country's top opposition leader, was found guilty on Tuesday of abuse of office in the signing of a natural gas supply contract in 2009. She was sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from occupying government posts for three years after her release. Denouncing the trial as a move to silence a political opponent, Tymoshenko compared herself to the victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges.
The United States condemned the verdict as politically motivated and demanded Tymoshenko's release. The European Union warned that failure to secure a fair appeals process for Tymoshenko would cost Ukraine a long-awaited association agreement with the 27-nation bloc.
Acting in rare unison with Western countries, Russia also condemned the ruling, although for a different reason. Russia said the gas deal that Tymoshenko concluded was legitimate and will not be revisited — something Yanukovych has lobbied for.
Since becoming president last year, Yanukovych has played a careful balancing act between Moscow and Brussels, actively lobbying for EU membership while also repairing relations with Russia, which were ruined by his pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.
Ukraine itself has been riven by historical and cultural divisions, with the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country yearning to shake off Russian influence and to be part of Europe, and the Russian-speaking east and south largely wanting to maintain Ukraine's historic ties to Moscow. Yanukovych, 61, draws his support from the east, where the country's heavy industry is concentrated.
Even though Yanukovych declared a commitment to Western values and went to Brussels on his first foreign trip, he has steadily undermined the democratic achievements of the 2004 Orange Revolution: Press and civil freedoms have waned, elections have not been clean, and the opposition has been squeezed.
With Tymoshenko's verdict he apparently crossed the line with Western governments, who made it clear they cannot be friends with that kind of Ukraine.
"This was done deliberately to cripple her (Tymoshenko) politically and remove her from future political participation," David J. Kramer, executive director of the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, said of the verdict. Ukraine "is moving in the wrong direction, that's for sure."
Kramer said that cleansing the political field of opponents was reminiscent of the democratic rollback that has taken place in Russia over the past decade under the presidency and then premiership of Vladimir Putin.
"In a certain respect, this is the Putin model and it's not a good model to follow, not if you want to look to Europe for your future."
Faced with harsh words from Western capitals, Yanukovych signaled that Tymoshenko's verdict was not final since she planned to appeal and upcoming legal reforms could turn her case around.
Analysts suggested that Yanukovych still had some face-saving solutions that would secure Tymoshenko's release but allow him to hold his ground politically. One option would be to adopt legislative changes that would turn Tymoshenko's violation from a criminal offense into an economic crime. Another would be an acquittal by an appeals court.
But if Yanukovych remains defiant and Tymoshenko continues to sit in jail, Ukraine, once lauded as a rare democratic success story among post-Soviet nations, would fall back under Russia's sway both psychologically and economically.
If the EU stalls the free-trade agreement with Kiev, Yanukovych would be pushed to join a Moscow-led customs union, which would boost trade with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan at the expense of economic cooperation with EU neighbors.
Moscow, eager to draw Ukraine back into its sphere of influence, has offered to lower prices for gas exports to Ukraine in exchange for the customs union membership. Yanukovych is under great pressure to secure a lower gas price as he faces popular discontent with rising utility prices and anger from the tycoons who supported his presidency, whose industries are highly energy dependent.
In fact, some experts believe that the Tymoshenko case was orchestrated in order to undermine the credibility of the 2009 gas agreement and help Ukraine get a better price.
"I think it goes like this: 5 percent political revenge on the part of the current authorities and 95 percent money," said Mikhail Barshchevsky, a senior lawyer for the Russian government, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio. "Blow up the contract ... Ukraine wants to renegotiate the contract."
But Kramer said that trading EU integration for a return to the Russian gas subsidies of the past was a short-lived strategy. Instead, Ukraine should accept the higher prices, reform its highly inefficient energy sector and end its economic dependance on Russia.
"When you take off a Band-Aid it's better to rip the thing off all at once. It's like with energy subsidies — better to eliminate them right away."
Some experts believe that even if Yanukovych decides to turn toward Russia now, Ukraine will still eventually integrate with the European Union because of its geographical proximity and cultural heritage. Ukraine borders EU members Poland, Slovakia and Hungary and its western territories were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Poland. Also, it lacks the proceeds from natural resources like oil and gas that authoritarian governments around the world use to offset public discontent, they say.
"Ukraine today has no alternative — it will be closer to Europe," said Valery Chaly, a senior analyst with the Razumkov Center in Kiev. "But how long will it take it to get there?"