In the days of absolute monarchies, rulers had great powers but also ran great risks. Regime-change was usually by death, natural or assisted. Bloodless succession was something of an achievement, even within the same royal houses. The way to the throne often led over the dead bodies of brothers, nephews, and uncles.
The world has evolved. Democratically elected leaders have much less power than absolute monarchs, but they also run fewer risks. Most leave office in reasonable health and die in peaceful retirement. Assassins, if any, come from the ranks of nutbars rather than from rivals or successors. The errors of democratic leaders are treated as errors, not as crimes. Even when some seriously moronic or reckless policies have devastating consequences and result in mayhem, the politicians responsible rarely end up in the Bastille or equivalent. The buck may stop at the U.S. president's desk, as Harry Truman put it -- but that's all it does. It stops. President Gerald Ford pardons President Richard Nixon, and the rest is history.
Not everybody agrees that this is a good thing, although it looks pretty civilized when compared to an existing alternative. We'll call it democratic succession, Ukrainian-style.
The former Ukrainian prime minister is currently serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power. Whatever Yulia Tymoshenko, 51, may or may not be, she's certainly not just another pretty face. In addition to an, oh, shall we say, pragmatic bent, that in the early 1990s enabled her and her husband, Oleksandr, to rise to the top of the post-Soviet oligarchy, she has always had several things going for her as a populist politician. They've included -- and still do -- an ability to speak for what seems like a supernaturally long period without having to pause for breath, and results in a profusion of patriotic platitudes that have found and are still finding an echo with many Ukrainians.
Those qualities augured the birth of a political star in 1996 when Ms. Tymoshenko, then 36, decided to throw her hat into the ring. Being one of the most comely women in Europe was just icing on the cake. Born of a Ukrainian mother and Latvian father, even wearing her hair in bizarre braids that made her resemble a Stalin-era poster for collective agriculture, couldn't quite spoil her perfect blonde Baltic looks.
Her star rose as anticipated. It took Ms. Tymoshenko about five years to challenge the established order of then-president Leonid Kuchma, and become a key player in the so-called Orange Revolution, East Europe's forerunner of the Arab Spring. The Orange Revolution was identical to its Middle East cousin in one important respect: It changed players, not the play. The Orange Revolution certainly did nothing to alter the Byzantine nature of the region's political culture.
Nine years after entering the fray, Ms. Tymoshenko reached the prime minister's chair. Her initial occupancy in 2005 lasted only eight months, but when she returned in 2007 she managed to hang on to the country's top office for three years. That is a respectable time for riding the bull in the extreme rodeo of East European politics.
Dismounting proved harder than staying in the saddle, as it often does. Entangled in the ropes, Ms. Tymoshenko was dragged around the arena in 2010 by the bull of an accusation. It was that she abused her power as prime minister in 2009 for having corruptly signed an energy deal with Russia that was disadvantageous to Ukraine. After a mockery of a trial, squeezed into a small, sweltering courtroom to keep out as many spectators as possible, a young judge assigned by the government, his stony face enlivened by a periodic twitch in his right eye, denied all defence motions with programmed predictability, listened attentively to a lady prosecutor, then convicted the former prime minister and sentenced her to seven years. Outside the courthouse, supporters set up rhythmic chants of "Yulia, Yuli-a" and some tried to lie in front of the prison van, but the soldiers, who seemed to outnumber the demonstrators, dragged them away.
Did Ms. Tymoshenko sign a bad deal for corrupt reasons in 2009? I've no idea. If she were given a genuine trial by an independent court we might find out, but from the charade that convicted her we found out only that there's nothing worse than politics dressing twitchy officials in robes to masquerade as justice. Ms. Tymoshenko claims to be sick, mistreated, and on a hunger strike. The media are paying attention. Ukraine's government isn't helping its own cause by having a representative hint, as Deputy Prime Minister Valery Khoroshkovsky did in Brussels this week, that it may pass special legislation to release Ms. Tymoshenko if the European Union plays ball with Ukraine in other trade negotiations.
That's impressive. North Korea, Somalia, step aside. Eastern Europe is catching up. A country holding its own ex-prime minister for ransom is either a lingering effect of 70 years of communism or a breakthrough in the quest for rock bottom. Perhaps Ukraine is about to open a new chapter in the history of piracy and blackmail.