KIEV, Ukraine — The seven-year prison term handed down to Ukraine’s former prime minister this month 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?
But deepening ties with Europe likely would lead to economic hardships as an angry Russia would refuse to sell its natural gas at a discount, leaving Mr. Yanukovych with millions of impoverished Ukrainians squeezed by higher gas bills ahead of elections next year.
Mrs. Tymoshenko, the country’s top opposition leader, was found guilty on Oct. 11 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, Mrs. Tymoshenko compared herself to the victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s purges.
The United States condemned the verdict as politically motivated and demanded Mrs. Tymoshenko’s release. The European Union warned that failure to secure a fair appeals process for Mrs. 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 Mrs. Tymoshenko concluded was legitimate and will not be revisited - something Mr. Yanukovych has lobbied for.
Since becoming president last year, Mr. 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.
Mr. Yanukovych, 61, draws his support from the east, where the country’s heavy industry is concentrated.
Even though Mr. 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.
“This was done deliberately to cripple her [Mrs. 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.”
Mr. Kramer said that cleansing the political field of opponents is reminiscent of the democratic rollback that has taken place in Russia over the past decade under the presidency and then premiership of Vladimir Putin.