Ukraine Looks To Free Tymoshenko, Salvage EU Pact

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has indicated he will change the law in order to end the controversial trial of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. But damage done to EU relations is likely to stay.

Pro-Tymoshenko protesters unfurl a banner in the Verkhovna Rada.

Yanukovych made the pledge during a two-hour long meeting with Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele and German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok in the margins of a high-level conference in Yalta on Friday (16 September). He also announced the move to press the same day.

The change concerns scrapping article 365 of the Ukrainian criminal code, which originated in Stalinist times in 1938.

The article is the basis of charges which could see Tymoshenko jailed for 10 years for alleged abuse of office when she signed a gas deal with Russia.

"He himself said that in Western Europe these kinds of cases are not criminal cases but political cases and this law from Soviet times is the basis of it all ... That's how I understood his message [that he will repeal the article ]. But we will see what happens in practice", Brok told EUobserver after the meeting.

The Tymoshenko trial is one of many launched against Yanukovych rivals since he came to power.

Previous interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, former defence minister Valeriy Ivashchenko, senior customs officials Anatoly Makarenko and Taras Shepitko and treasury officials Tetyana Slyuz and Tetyana Grytsun face similar charges.

Former economy minister Bogdtan Danylyshyn got political asylum in the Czech Republic after prosecutors knocked on his door.

The Yanukovych camp could charge Tymoshenko with corruption instead.

But it is wary in case corruption trials expose dirt on its own people.

"If they really wanted to clean up the system, there would be very few people left in the Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian parliament]", one Kiev-based analyst said on condition of anonymity.

The dispute over whether Yanukovych is taking Ukraine back into the dark ages comes at a sensitive time.

Ukraine's EU ambassador, Kostyantyn Yeliseyev told this website that a new round of negotiations in Brussels this week on an EU-Ukraine political association and trade pact could be the last one before it is initialed in December.

He added the treaty is more important than Tymoshenko or Yanukovych because it means a "historic" realignment of Ukraine from Russia to the West.

"In my view, it could be compared to the fall of the Berlin wall ... We call on EU leaders to understand the strategic importance of maintaining momentum", he said.

Yeliseyev's view is shared by some pro-enlargement EU countries such as Poland. But Bildt, Brok and Fuele do not agree.

"This is old thinking. We live in a modern society where values play a role. You can't have an Association Agreement, which might even contain a European [accession] perspective and at the same time put the opposition in prison", Brok said.

"If a solution is not found [on Tymoshenko], while we are determined to finalise the negotiations, it might be difficult," Fuele told media on Friday.

The dispute also comes ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw on 29 September.

The Polish EU presidency is keen for the event to see a joint declaration giving some hope to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine that they might one day join the European Union.

Warsaw already got Kiev to put the Tymoshenko trial on hold for two weeks so that the verdict does not come out on the eve of the summit.

A senior EU diplomat told this website the political vendettas in Ukraine have done lasting harm, however.

"This has already had an impact on our discussions about the Eastern Partnership summit declaration. It creates a negative context. We are hearing that this is a group of failed countries. Very few people are now speaking about any European perspective for them", the contact said.

Source: EUobserver