EU Gets Tough With Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Following a trial that has dominated headlines for months, last week former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko received a seven-year prison sentence for the abuse of power while in office.

Members of Yulia Tymoshenko's party, demanding to pass a bill on 'decriminalisation' of the Criminal Code article under which ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko was convicted, cover their seats with a poster with Tymoshenko's portrait in the Parliament in Kiev, October 18, 2011.

Additionally she was banned from holding any government position for three years following the completion of her sentence and ordered to pay $189 million to the state for losses caused by the 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas deal, which she signed with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

While this verdict may have come as no surprise to many people, it nevertheless still caused shock waves in the West, with the EU feeling particularly annoyed.

Brussels seemed to believe that it had convinced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to prevent the guilty verdict.

However, given that Yanukovych has always claimed he had nothing to do with the process and would not interfere with an independent judicial procedure, he clearly felt that to do so now may expose him as being behind the whole case.

The verdict was also not well received in Ukraine.

Not because Tymoshenko is particularly popular, because she is not.

Indeed recent polls show her still trailing behind Yanukovych, which is telling in itself, demonstrating that Ukrainians have still not forgotten her disastrous years in office, when she made a lot of promises but delivered nothing.

Rather, the concern is about Ukraine’s democracy.

While it is highly unlikely that another orange-like revolution will now occur in the streets, it may take place at the ballot box at the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Unless of course Yanukovych produces some outstanding results in terms of reforms improving the quality of peoples lives, including increasing money in people’s pockets, over the next 12 months.

The EU had given Yanukovych several warnings in the run-up to the court’s verdict.

Even Ukraine’s closest allies, such as Poland, had been pressing the president.

Indeed for Poland, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, there is a big sense of disappointment.

Finalizing an Association Agreement, including a groundbreaking Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), currently in the final stages of negotiation with Kiev, by the end of the year was a priority.

This agreement is now in jeopardy.

Furthermore, even if the agreement were to be initialed by year’s end, it is unlikely to be ratified by EU national parliaments or the European Parliament as long as Tymoshenko remains in prison.

On Oct. 17, the EU postponed Yanukovych’s Oct. 20 visit to Brussels.

Unfortunately, they decided to deliver this news on the very morning the Ukrainian parliament was due to start the process of debating amending the criminal code, which could eventually pave the way for the release of Tymoshenko.

This was not well received in Kiev, which saw it as yet another signal of the EU pushing Ukraine away, something the EU has been doing ever since Ukraine’s independence.

Even in the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when Ukraine became a beacon of democracy in the region, the EU failed to change its policies, maintaining the same agreements negotiated with former autocratic President Leonid Kuchma, and advising Ukraine not to even think about applying for membership.

While the visit by Yanukovych has now been rescheduled for mid-November it would seem that whether or not it actually takes places depends on the next steps taken by Ukraine’s leadership.

The EU is still expecting the release of Tymoshenko and her return to normal political life, including participating in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

This can be achieved by amending the criminal code in parliament.

Tymoshenko’s lawyers are due to file a motion in the court of appeals this week.

Over the last days many different messages have been flying out of Ukraine.

Some have hinted at the Ukrainian side possibly delaying ratification of the Association Agreement while others are saying that Kiev is still hopeful of striking a bargain with the EU.

As usual Ukraine is being predictably unpredictable.

The stakes are very high, for both the EU and Ukraine.

Ukraine is a key strategic partner. Isolating Ukraine is not the answer.

What Ukraine needs is increased engagement and help in reforming its judicial and legal system.

By pushing Ukraine into a corner the EU is almost guaranteeing instability in the country.

As Ukraine is a direct neighbor, instability will have a direct impact on the EU on a whole range of issues, including human and drug trafficking and illegal migration.

There will be no winners in this situation other than Ukraine’s big neighbor Russia and those EU countries that never wanted closer integration with Ukraine in the first place.

Ukraine has been the lead country in the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy and Eastern Partnership Initiative.

It was Ukraine that worked and pushed for Association Agreements, DCFTAs and visa liberalization for countries in the East.

All these countries have gained from Ukraine’s efforts.

Yes, Ukraine has made some mistakes but the EU has politicized the issue and lashed out particularly harshly.

I wonder if it will have the same approach to other countries in this region that are also negotiating such agreements and are far from perfect democracies?

Source: Sundays Zaman