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As Americans, we take the rule of law as a given. We usually think of this in terms of national epigrams like “a nation of laws, and not of men,” and the idea that anyone high or low is entitled to the same procedural safeguards before he is deprived of life, liberty, or property.
These things are true, and they are valuable rights our forebears had the good sense to carve out and hold out against our governments. But they are the flip side of a coin our ancestors took for granted – that a nation of laws can only survive if men are obedient to the law, even when they deem it unjust. An unjust law must be obeyed until it is lawfully erased through peaceful protest and through the civic mechanisms that exist to change or delete it. The law, as the best representation of what men believe to be just, must be given the presumption of justice as long as it is in effect.
As Americans, we have largely forgotten this in any explicit sense, even if we clearly hew to the idea in practice: We pay our taxes, we show up for jury duty, we pull to the side when an emergency vehicle comes racing up in traffic. Because we have internalized this idea, we take it for granted, and forget that without this implicit and explicit respect for the law, the procedural mechanisms will and must decay.
This is not true the world over, and indeed, need not always remain true here. In the former Soviet Union, twenty years of hard work have not corrected for generations of a view of the law as something to be used when possible, and otherwise avoided. The Ukraine is currently providing us a preview of what our future will look like if we continue to forget the linkage between civic duty and sovereign limitation.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the twice-former prime minister of the Ukraine, is on trial for what essentially amount to charges of abuse of power while prime minister. (She is also being investigated for corruption while making her billions in the private sector.) Ms. Tymoshenko, who garnered an enormous amount of goodwill in the West and at home as one of the leaders of the so-called Orange Revolution, ran for the presidency after a largely failed premiership under her former Orange Revolution partner, Viktor Yushchenko, and lost by a few percentage points to the Ukraine’s current president, Viktor Yanukovych. Tymoshenko’s trial is basically custom-made for a Hollywood film – the embattled, beautiful, former prime minister, now opposition leader, on trial by her frowning political opponent – and Tymoshenko has played it to the hilt. As with most things Hollywood, this is simple to the point of being affirmatively wrong.
She is currently undermining the rule of law by breaking her part of the compact, the promise that she will treat the same institutions over which she governed as legitimate. She is doing so because her personal ambition appears to be more important than her duty to her country’s civic institutions.
Tymoshenko garnered an enormous amount of goodwill as a result of her part in the Orange Revolution, to the point where basically the rest of her life history has gone down the memory hole. She made her fortune in the 1990s as a natural gas oligarch, getting the nickname “gas princess” (think in terms of Elizabeth Báthory rather than Rapunzel) by allegedly squeezing a monopoly on the Russian natural gas flowing into the Ukraine. Her business partner of the time, former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, was convicted of money laundering, wire fraud and extortion in the U.S. in 2006. Her time in the Ukrainian parliament after she made her fortune was marked by protests, well-publicized rages, fights with the rest of the government, two-way accusations of corruption, a pending Russian indictment, and essentially what one would expect of a natural gas oligarch diva who decided to do politics.
The Orange Revolution, and her role as a beautiful and charismatic spokesman for it, vaulted her to near the top of Ukrainian politics, where she would serve as Yushchenko’s prime minister until, just eight months later, he grew tired of the protests, well-publicized rages, fights with the rest of the government, and two-way accusations of corruption, and dismissed her. In what he would later describe as the worst mistake of his life, Yushchenko appointed her prime minister again two years later. Her second tour as prime minister would include highlights like stated neutrality over the Russian invasion of Georgia (an invasion opposed by the rest of the government), cozying up to Vladimir Putin, protests, well-publicized rages, fights with the rest of the government, opposition to free market and civil service reforms (a trend that continues to this day), two-way accusations of corruption, and essentially what one would expect of a natural gas oligarch diva who decided to do politics.
Unsurprisingly, Yushchenko actively campaigned against her in the 2010 elections. Also unsurprisingly, Putin made clear that she was his chosen candidate.
When Ukrainians were understandably weary of her antics and turned down her bid for the presidency in 2010, she took the election to court; when the courts refused to immediately name her president, she loudly declared the same courts she had overseen as prime minister hopelessly corrupt and a sham. Now on trial, she has taken to having her protesters (who have been allowed to protest on the courthouse steps) flood into the courtroom to protest. When the judge grew weary of having chanting protesters in his courtroom during open court — a feature of judges across the planet — and had them removed, Tymoshenko took the opportunity to step up her public taunting of the judge, leading to her removal.
One might almost detect a pattern here.
The problem is not merely one minority politician in a former Soviet republic taking advantage of her best camera angles to push her political agenda and break her country’s judiciary. The problem is how this has been portrayed by the press and governments at home and abroad – and the message that they have inadvertently broadcast as a result.
The Financial Times, for example, has actually developed a fondness for oligarchs for the first time in living memory. The Obama Administration, not seeing a largely neutralized Muslim despot to bomb, has valiantly leaped into its traditional stance of puzzled ambivalence. The European Union is adopting the same stance. A consistent theme among the media outlets has played Tymoshenko as Joan of Arc before the Inquisition, treating public histrionics and contempt of court that would have her in shackles in the United States as a valiant speaking of truth to power. In so doing, they are not merely telling a good story. They are aiding the lady’s attempt to undermine the rule of law. They are joining Tymoshenko in saying that the rule of law runs only one way, and that citizens do not have a duty to avoid starting riots in courtrooms, or using courts as personal political stages. By example, they are disintegrating the civic behavior that makes the guarantee of procedural fairness possible.
We still treat these sorts of histrionics as aberrant. That will not last as we — through our civic institutions, and inevitably our own behavior — define deviancy down, to the point where the state’s mechanisms of law are not even honored by its citizens. Though not the way she undoubtedly intends, Yulia Tymoshenko is an object lesson to us all.