Kiev Frustrates Efforts To Embrace Democracy

KIEV, Ukraine -- Late last month, Ukraine and the European Union initialled a groundbreaking political and trade deal.

This should have meant champagne and backslapping as one of the final steps in sealing the biggest EU agreement with a non-member, bringing the huge ex-Soviet republic closer to Europe’s democratic “family”.

Instead, it went almost unheralded.

EU officials warned sternly the deal would only actually be signed and ratified if there was a big change in Kiev’s behaviour.

The faintly embarrassed atmosphere surrounding the whole thing reflects mounting exasperation in Europe and the US with the government of President Viktor Yanukovich.

The cause is the rollback since he won 2010 presidential elections of the democratic gains that, for all their bickering and blunders, the governments that followed Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange revolution” still achieved.

The symbol of this has become what the west calls politically motivated persecution of the opposition – above all, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, defeated 2010 presidential candidate and Orange leader.

The 51-year-old firebrand was jailed last autumn for seven years, accused of abusing the premier’s office when agreeing a 2009 Russian gas deal. After western criticism, Mr Yanukovich appeared briefly to be seeking a face-saving way to release her.

Instead, the legal assault has been stepped up.

Previously thrown-out cases against Ms Tymoshenko from the 1990s have been disinterred.

Hours before the EU deal was initialled, prosecutors formally brought tax evasion charges against her, carrying a further potential seven- to 12-year sentence.

Renat Kuzmin, Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor-general, has toured western capitals to detail multiple probes, including whether Ms Tymoshenko was linked to a 1996 contract killing – akin, says her lawyer, to alleging she shot Kennedy.

But Ms Tymoshenko is not alone.

More than a dozen political allies have also been targeted.

Yury Lutsenko, former interior minister and another Orange leader, was sentenced in February to four years on embezzlement charges.

A former acting defence minister under Ms Tymoshenko has been detained since August 2010.

Fleeing abuse of office charges, her former economy minister has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.

Ms Tymoshenko’s husband, though not charged, won asylum there too.

Prosecutors are trying to extradite a former regional governor and Tymoshenko ally from Italy.

Officials say these cases are part of a broad anti-corruption drive launched by the new government – half of 179 lawmakers prosecuted last year were from Mr Yanukovich’s party.

The overwhelming majority of top-level targets, however, are Tymoshenko allies.

Mr Yanukovich’s circle insists that Ukraine’s legal system is independent.

An indignant Mr Kuzmin says western critics are hypocrites who do not know the facts.

But at least one minister privately admits Ms Tymoshenko’s fate is up to the president.

Europe and the US can afford to respond robustly.

Despite warnings that withholding the EU deal would drive Ukraine into Russia’s arms, Kiev’s relations with Moscow are awful.

As Ukraine, facing a fiscal squeeze, pleads for lower gas prices from Russia, returning president Vladimir Putin has upped the ante.

Ukraine, he says, must join a single market Moscow is creating with former-Soviet Belarus and Kazakhstan or hand Gazprom control of the gas export pipeline across Ukraine.

Kiev sees either as a step too far.

But if Ukraine wants to continue European integration, the west has signalled that a crucial test is whether parliamentary elections in October are free and fair.

Earlier, western leaders suggested this was impossible if the leading opposition figure was behind bars.

Now, responding to calls from Ms Tymoshenko and opposition parties, officials hint western states may recognise the elections without her participation, provided they are otherwise fair.

With Mr Yanukovich’s party’s poll lead narrowing, this sets the stage for a crucial contest.

Ukraine’s fractious opposition parties are close to agreeing to field joint candidates.

Civil society networks are gearing up to counter electoral fraud, including Opora, a key player in 2004.

There are signs, too, that democratic backsliding has angered Ukrainians; one recent poll showed appetite for protest at record levels.

That may not mean a new Orange uprising.

But October’s poll could be the most important since hundreds of thousands thronged Kiev’s Maidan square seven years ago.

Source: FT