New Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo
Participants: Ekaterina Kudashkina, Sergei Strokan, Dmitry Polikarpov, Giulietto Chiesa, Arkady Moshes
Ekaterina Kudashkina : This time our program will focus on several surprising stories that came out this week, starting with Ukraine, where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison. We will then cross the Atlantic to consider the alleged plot against the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, and finally we will talk about new Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who has hinted that Denmark will take some radical steps during its EU presidency next year.
So let’s get started. First, Beyond the Headlines. Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister, was sentenced this week to seven years in prison for abuse of power in relation to a gas deal she had brokered with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in 2009. In Kiev, Judge Rodion Kireev found Tymoshenko guilty of exceeding her authority by making a state energy company sign a 10-year gas import deal with Russia that was overly advantageous to Moscow, at least according to the court sentence. “The court rules that Tymoshenko intentionally used her powers to criminal ends,” Kireev said in his judgment. Tymoshenko will also have to pay back $190 million to compensate public gas company Naftagaz for lost revenue, and finally, she will be barred from holding a government post for three years.
Did anyone really expect such an outcome?
Dmitry Polikarpov: My answer is no. I would have expected Tymoshenko to be sentenced for the financial wrongdoings of which she was accused in 2001, when she was a deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector. But to find her guilty of negotiating an agreement with Russia… I don’t really understand it. Several European diplomats and journalists based in Moscow told me also that nobody expected the ruling.
Sergei Strokan: In Brussels, I witnessed a similar mood. I was participating in a conference on media, but there was one ranking European Union official who was speaking from the podium when this news of Tymoshenko came out, so Ukrainian journalists almost interrupted him, and kept on asking one question after another. Everybody forgot about the agenda and the media, and the conference turned into a press conference. He made it clear that the European Union is not satisfied with this.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: What can the European Union do?
Sergei Strokan: He refrained from giving a direct answer, so I have a feeling that it really took Europeans by surprise, this is an unpleasant surprise, they are definitely frustrated, and at the moment they are working out their position. They do not want to distract Ukraine from its integration process into the European Union, the Eastern Partnership Program, but at the same time they can’t just simply ignore this.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Dmitry, can you remind us of the scandal for which Ms. Tymoshenko was sentenced?
Dmitry Polikarpov: In January 2009, Russia cut supplies to Ukraine after the country refused to accept the new price for natural gas. A week later, Gazprom accused the Ukrainians of stealing gas intended for European consumers and fully stopped supplies through Ukrainian gas pipelines. During this “gas war”, which coincided with a rather cold winter, many households in Europe spent several days without gas, while some plants even had to reduce or stop production.
Sergei Strokan: It looks like the conviction was inescapable for Tymoshenko this time. It was clear from the beginning that this process was not started just to scare her. It was a well-calculated action. Tymoshenko became a political scapegoat in the wake of Ukraine’s current attempts to revise gas prices. They consider the figures agreed to by Tymoshenko to be too high and need a legal pretext to make Russia seek a compromise. They say that the Ukrainian economy can’t survive if they just keep these prices.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: But in this case, Tymoshenko was just a broker, and a broker cannot be sentenced. Her signature wasn’t even on the agreement.
Dmitry Polikarpov: I can smell two main scents here: gas and politics. Another important purpose of this action was to remove the key rival to current president Viktor Yanukovich from the political stage. Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections next year.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: The criticisms coming from Moscow, Brussels and Washington have been very different. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he did not understand for what was Tymoshenko sentenced, stressing that the contracts between Russia and Ukraine fully respected their national laws and internationally accepted norms. The statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry was even more precise. It said that the verdict against Tymoshenko “appears politically motivated” and has an “anti-Russian” flavor, adding that the gas contracts are “valid” and will remain intact. U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was “deeply disappointed” by the “politically motivated prosecution” of Tymoshenko. However, the most alarming reaction came from the European Union. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the verdict would have “profound implications” for the bloc's ties with Ukraine, I think she was hinting at the possibility to postpone the signing of an Association Agreement which was expected by the end of this year.
Sergei Strokan: I think that definitely the European Union will have to spell out these “profound implications,” but I think that already the initial response from the European Union comes as a serious warning to Ukraine’s authorities. Much will depend on how the situation will develop and what will happen to Yulia Tymoshenko in the long run.
Dmitry Polikarpov: So you do not believe she will really spend seven years in jail?
Sergei Strokan: Well, seven years, it is highly unlikely. Tymoshenko's fate will be decided in the next few days. Under pressure from the European Union, the Ukrainian authorities will have to find ways of compromise, which are quite a few. One possibility is an appeal to the Court of Appeal by Tymoshenko’s legal team. A vote can also be taken for decriminalization of the action under some Ukrainian legislation inherited from the Soviet Union.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Whatever the outcome of this case, whether Tymoshenko stays in prison or eventually is released, with the right spin and PR campaign, there will be one outcome: the Ukrainian opposition can turn Tymoshenko into a political martyr. Tymoshenko’s daughter said without hesitation that she expected her mother to be president of Ukraine someday.
Dmitry Polikarpov: And in addition to her faithful voters in Ukraine, she has several important supporters abroad. Two presidents, two prime ministers and three foreign ministers, among others, have sent Tymoshenko notes of support during her stay in prison.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now let’s hear from Arkady Moshes, director of the Russian program at the Finnish Institute of International Studies in Helsinki.
Mr. Moshes, Oct. 20th is the deadline by which Mr. Yanukovich is expected to take certain steps that would indicate whether he is going to perhaps revise the decision or move it forward. What are your impressions?
Arkady Moshes: I think that at the moment the authorities and people who are advising Mr. Yanukovich are just trying to gain time. The line that seems to be now holding is that Ms. Tymoshenko still has the right of appeal, but of course the whole procedure of appeal can easily take two to four months. I think that will be his message to the European Union, It is too early to make a forecast. Yanukovich has cornered himself, now it is very difficult to undo what he has already done.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Have you talked to some political figures in Ukraine?
Arkady Moshes: I did, but not of the top political caliber. I talked to some opposition people. The people that I talked to now see more reasons than before, I would say, to get united. There is a feeling that if the regime can crush the strongest opposition figure, then it can basically squash the political field, sooner or later. It is an incentive for the opposition today to be together.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: And now we’re moving on to the next section of our program, Between the Lines, in which we usually discuss what we believe to be one of the most interesting stories of the week. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it uncovered an Iranian plot targeting the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. “Asia Times” author Pepe Escobar considered this situation in an opinion piece written especially for the Al Jazeera website entitled “The fast and furious plot to occupy Iran.”
Let me start with an opening quote, as usual. “No one ever lost money betting on the dull predictability of the U.S. government. Just as Occupy Wall Street is firing imaginations all across the spectrum – piercing the noxious revolving door between government and casino capitalism – Washington brought us all down to earth, sensationally advertising an Iranian-cum-Mexican cartel terror plot straight out of ‘The Fast and the Furious’ movie franchise. FBI Director Robert Mueller insisted the Iran-masterminded terror plot "reads like the pages of a Hollywood script.’”
Sergei Strokan: The plot case is really opaque. As far as I understand, the major elements are the confessions of Arbabsiar himself, the $100,000 that he transferred and his phone call to an unknown someone allegedly in Iran – not much!
No one would suspect me of advocating for Iran, but this time it really looks like something has gone wrong. The case is a gift for Iran. Remember, they were quick to say it’s a U.S. attempt to divert public attention from domestic U.S. trouble!
Ekaterina Kudashkina: I would not rule it out. And the U.S. politicians’ reaction was so easy to guess. They again renewed their demands to impose sanctions on Iran, with Vice President Joe Biden even saying something like all options are still on the table.
Sergei Strokan: I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. I’m sure there’s going to be more evidence emerging in the coming weeks.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: The question is just how credible it is. The public has been rather frustrated with all those lies before the war in Iraq and the revelations that followed. And they all pointed their fingers at the special services. I see no reason why they would not repeat the trick this time around.
Let me quote Escobar, he’s definitely wording it so much better than me. “The Justice Department has peddled quite a murky story - Operation Red Coalition (no, you can’t make that stuff up) - centered on one Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old holding both Iranian and US passports and an Iran-based co-conspirator, Gholam Shakuri, an alleged member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's Quds Force. Arbabsiar allegedly had a series of encounters in Mexico with a DEA mole posing as a Mexican drug cartel heavyweight. The Iranian-American seems to have been convinced that the mole was a member of the hardcore Zetas Mexican cartel, and reportedly bragged he was being ‘directed by high-ranking members of the Iranian government.’ Then they discussed a "number of violent missions" complete with Arbabsiar bragging about bombing a packed Washington restaurant used by the Saudi ambassador.”
Dmitry Polikarpov: But this story really raises lots of questions – how come in the important mission like that one Iranians would chose to hire someone …
Ekaterina Kudashkina: …as professional as a car dealer who would wire money to a bank account, let alone his attempts to hire a killer from among the Mexican drug cartel? There’s no good answer to that – I’ve seen the “Washington Post” quoting Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East and author of several books on Iran, said there was “sloppiness about the case that defies belief.”
Dmitry Polikarpov: I’ve seen a similar opinion from Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Germany, whose point was that the U.S. accusations raised “a lot of questions.” “I’m very skeptical,” he said. “If the government of Iran wanted to do something against a foreign Arab diplomat, it would not be necessary to do it in the United States. They could do it in any country of the Middle East.”
Sergei Strokan: But putting aside those questions – which are important, no doubt of that – I still believe that it is also worth looking at what the implication of the case could be.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: It could certainly be something that would divert attention from domestic issues. Besides, don’t you see that recent U.S. policy has contributed largely to the rise of Iran? All attempts to isolate it, to threaten it, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – all that is making Iran stronger.
Sergei Strokan: I can fully agree with this, and the American side says that sanctions really work, and they manage to weaken Iran, not to strengthen it. At the same time, I think that obviously this case fuels anti-Iranian sentiments among America’s allies.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: My point is that this case is not convincing at all.
Sergei Strokan: No one will care about details. Let me remind you that the campaign to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue was losing its steam and the world community was preoccupied with Libya, with Syria, and for some time there was an impression that everybody had forgotten about Iran. So what I am saying is that probably this case will be used just as an instrument, an excuse to launch another offensive on Iran.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: But this is no reason to fabricate cases, it is extremely cynical, it is international terrorism.
Sergei Strokan: This is part of politics, politics is a dirty thing, but what I am saying is when we have to look at a broader aspect of it, I expect serious implications and I expect Iran to be part of the breaking news in the coming weeks because of this, because the pressure on Iran obviously will mount.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we are joined by Giulietto Chiesa, who is a well-known Italian journalist and politician.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: In one of your previous interviews I remember you told me that the U.S. administration or rather some politicians in the U.S. administration are looking for another war. So, is it something we are witnessing now?
Giulietto Chiesa: I believe that nothing at the moment has been decided, but there are different scenarios going on. One of these scenarios is Lebanon, the other scenario is Syria and the third scenario is Iran. All three are different, but they are going on all together in parallel. We are witnessing now the development of one of these – Iran. I believe that those who are organizing these kinds of developments are refreshing them sometimes to maintain the attention of the mainstream media around them, so the public will not lose attention in that direction.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: And now we come to the final section of our program – The Face in the News. This week the person we are talking about is Denmark's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The Social Democratic party leader since 2005, Thorning-Schmidt heads a four-party coalition that took 89 seats in Denmark's 179-seat parliament. This narrow election win brought an end to 10 years of center-right rule. The new Danish prime minister recently made her official debut in Brussels, stating that her government will work to abolish opt-outs from the EU once the country becomes the EU's rotational president in the first half of 2012.
Speaking at the EU Council headquarters, Thorning-Schmidt promised that Denmark will move towards closer EU integration by working to abolish the four opt-outs from common policies the country negotiated in 1993 after it rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. They include an opt-out from the euro, as well as some matters relating to the Common Security and Defense Policy, Justice and Home Affairs, and the citizenship of the EU. Thorning-Schmidt ’s words came as a sort of consolation to the European Union currently struggling through a major debt crisis that is causing analysts to ask whether it might disintegrate. She said that the crisis was behind Denmark’s decision to move towards abolishing its privileges and becoming “a regular EU member.” Perhaps, the most spectacular step the first woman PM has made so far was to announce that she would reverse a controversial bid by her predecessor intended to introduce permanent customs controls at Danish borders.
Sergei Strokan: As far as I know, the plan to revive customs controls, approved last May by the previous center-right government was considered as a clear slap to Brussels. Was it?
Dmitry Polikarpov: Yes. It caused harsh criticism from the European Commission and Germany, cautioning the move could violate the open-border Schengen Agreement. There is no doubt, this plan’s reversal was meant as a first sign of a comeback of the pro-European forces. "In cooperation with our neighbors, Denmark will carry out an effective customs control based on a mobile, flexible and intelligence-based effort in keeping with the common rules in effect in the EU," the new government's program says. Thorning-Schmidt ’s victory, which brings the Danish left back to power after 10 years in opposition, is likely to mean Denmark will be less hostile to moves towards closer economic co-ordination within the European Union.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Some points of her program look a little bit controversial to some experts. Do you agree?
Sergei Strokan: Yes, Thorning-Schmidt’s pledge to create new jobs seems to contradict with her trademark election idea of making people work 12 additional minutes each day to battle Denmark’s worst downturn since World War II. She has proposed making everyone work for 12 minutes longer, creating an extra hour of productivity each week, which her party argues would help kick-start growth.
Dmitry Polikarpov : Let us not forget that the latest polls resulted in a strange anomaly in Danish politics. Thorning-Schmidt’s party had its worst election results in 100 years. The main players in the new government both lost seats in the house. As one Danish newspaper headline read: The Victory of the Losers! However, the winners did not hesitate to celebrate their victory. “Make no mistake, today we've written history,” the new PM told her supporters.
Sergei Strokan: Actually, Thorning-Schmidt was not referring to the importance of the fact that Denmark finally got the first female government leader in its history. On the contrary, little has been made of her gender during the election campaign. Neither is she expected to use her post to make any significant changes to the country's already well-advanced equality laws. In a recent TV interview, she said being elected would have little effect. Except perhaps for encouraging young girls to think "hmm, this is a post I can aspire to".
Ekaterina Kudashkina: However, the Information Danish newspaper described her win as a "victory for women" which should be seen as "an important step for gender equality - not least on the symbolic level." It is strange to me – if you take gender equality as a natural thing why talk about this? She is stylish, she has a taste for designer clothes, and this has been making headlines during the election campaign. Many consider her image inappropriate for the leader of a traditional workers' party.
The day after the election, the Politikennewspaper said she had won despite being "too well-dressed for the Social Democrats, too fresh to become the head of the country, too cool to win people's hearts".
Sergei Strokan: Apart from Thorning-Schmidt's sophisticated image, has she really got a relevant political background?
Dmitry Polikarpov: She was elected head of the Social Democrats six years ago, at the age of 39. Thorning-Schmidt has a degree in political science from the University of Copenhagen and has also studied at the European College in Bruges, an experience she said changed her life. She worked for a time as a consultant for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions and also served one term as a member of parliament between 1999 and 2004. However, her first elections ended with a disastrous defeat in 2007. These polls made her conclude Danes "need more time before they hand over responsibility to us." For the 2011 elections, Thorning-Schmidt campaigned on a platform of tax rises and increased public spending. But she has pledged she will not "jump on the austerity wagon" with other countries in Europe and will protect the welfare system. She also has promised to turn the economy around and kick-start growth by investing in education and infrastructure to create jobs.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: What I find interesting about this program is that in every episode, there is a woman either at the front or in the background. I think that women are now conquering big politics, and they are making a difference, but I am not sure that the difference is always for the better.
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