WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- Second only to Russia itself, Ukraine is the most important country of the former Soviet Union for U.S. policy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Despite Kiev's decision not to join NATO following President Viktor Yanukovych's election in 2010, Ukraine remains a key U.S. partner. For example, one of Yanukovych's first acts after taking office was to transfer to the United States Ukraine's stock of highly enriched uranium, something Washington had unsuccessfully pursued since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Ukraine has contributed troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan and Ukrainians served in the Iraq coalition as one of the largest contingents. Though no longer a NATO candidate, Ukraine actively cooperates with the alliance through the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the Partnership for Peace.
But Ukraine's reliability as an international partner remains uncertain in light of the country's internal divisions. While Ukraine retains one of the most functional democratic political systems in the former Soviet Union, with only perhaps Georgia comparable, foreign observers of recent parliamentary elections pointed to significant flaws. Corruption and oligarchic pressures remain problems, as well as economic, energy, demographic and fiscal issues.
Most of all, Ukraine remains a deeply divided country. Reflecting differences between the Russian-speaking east and south, and the Ukrainian-speaking west -- with a middle zone, including the capital, Kiev, up for grabs -- Ukraine's chronic divisions make the United States' red and blue state divide seem insignificant.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the contention surrounding jailed opposition leader and former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
One of the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution of 2004, Tymoshenko -- universally recognized by the trademark Ukrainian folk-style braid circling her head -- was convicted in 2011 for "abuse of power" and sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment in connection with a natural gas deal she negotiated with Russia while in office.
She also faces murder charges for the 1996 shooting death of parliamentarian Yevhen Shcherban and two other people.
Tymoshenko's supporters, in Ukraine and abroad, claim that the charges against her are unfounded and that the prosecutions are purely a political vendetta against her by Yanukovych and his unscrupulous supporters. Particularly in Europe, her imprisonment has been a litmus test of Ukraine's adherence to democracy and the rule of law.
Conversely, Ukrainian prosecutors deny base political motives and insist that they have solid evidence against Tymoshenko for both the Shcherban killings and the bad gas deal with the Russians. Critics of Tymoshenko allege a long history of corruption, going back to her days as an energy oligarch in her own right (earning her the nickname "the gas princess"), illustrated by the 6-year stint in a U.S. federal prison of one of her close confederates, Pavlo Lazarenko, for extortion, money-laundering and fraud.
As with much else in Ukraine, where the truth lies is anyone's guess. But there's no avoiding the fact that the divisions over Tymoshenko tap into the profound fault lines that have threatened Ukraine's stability ever since it became an independent country in 1991.
Those divisions, and the poisonous political atmosphere that has characterized independent Ukraine, constitute a threat to Ukraine's domestic peace and international standing far more significant than Tymoshenko's personal guilt or innocence.
At this point, Ukraine can take two paths with respect to Tymoshenko. First, as things stand now, the relentless zero-sum-game continues, in which eventually either she or her critics (take your pick) stand forth as entirely innocent or entirely corrupt. Either way, the result is likely to pour gasoline on Ukraine's already smoldering embers, with negative consequences for the whole country.
Alternatively, both Tymoshenko's and the government's supporters can start to look for a way out of the corner they have painted themselves into. This would require something that has been almost entirely lacking in Ukraine's politics to date: a willingness to compromise and to admit that "we" are not entirely right, and "you" aren't entirely wrong.
As we see in the United States, such comprise isn't easy even in what is considered a mature democracy. It is even more difficult in a democracy as young as Ukraine's and where the relevant actors have invested so much political capital in demonizing their opponents.
However difficult it might be for Ukrainians to achieve such a compromise and produce a "win-win" solution based on mutual respect, doing so can only be of benefit to Ukraine's stability and international standing. By the same token, U.S. and other foreign observers would do well to look beyond today's contentious politicians to Ukraine's enduring potential as a valued and reliable partner.
(Bruce M. Rickerson formerly served in a professional capacity with the Organization of American States, the U.S. Department of State, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and taught at the university level.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)