Europe Cautiously Signals Its Displeasure Over A Prosecution In Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- After the sentencing of Ukraine’s opposition leader, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the European Union on Tuesday abruptly put off a meeting with the country’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, in the clearest sign yet that efforts to integrate Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, more closely with Western Europe are stalling.

Viktor Yanukovych

Though Mr. Yanukovich’s visit to Brussels was officially postponed, rather than canceled, officials said it would take place only when there was clear progress with respect to the rule of law and the independence of Ukraine’s judiciary.

After Mr. Yanukovich eked out a victory over Ms. Tymoshenko in last year’s election, prosecutors opened criminal cases against her and other opposition figures, on what international observers condemned as vague or dubious charges.

The meeting in Brussels had been intended to help complete an association and free-trade deal with the European Union, one of Mr. Yanukovich’s central goals.

With that project now in jeopardy, Ukraine’s prime minister traveled to Russia on an already scheduled trip, where he signed a free-trade agreement on Tuesday with seven other post-Soviet nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The events of the past week underline the problem faced by European officials as they struggle to take a firm stand on human rights without driving Mr. Yanukovich closer to Moscow.

“For Brussels, it is a complex dilemma,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center of Applied Political Studies, in Kiev, Ukraine.

“Politically, they have to draw a red cross over Yanukovich. On the other hand, to throw out Ukraine, to turn away from all the levers of power over Ukraine — they are not prepared to do that.”

European officials roundly condemned the seven-year sentence handed down to Ms. Tymoshenko, who was tried on charges that she harmed Ukraine’s interests by agreeing to pay Russia an excessively high price for gas in 2009.

International legal experts said that she seemed to have been performing a routine administrative function for which she might conceivably be disciplined, if the government was displeased with her performance, but not charged with a crime.

Some European leaders said they believed that they had a commitment from Mr. Yanukovich that her sentence would be rolled back.

But the Ukrainian president scoffed at that notion during an interview with Western journalists on Monday, and the fragile cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union appeared to give way.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said on Twitter that Thursday’s meeting was postponed “to a later date when the conditions will be more conducive to making progress.”

Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that would require “progress in the rule of law and order and independence of the judiciary.”

Technical work on the so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine will continue, but it now appears that it will not be completed and signed in December as once believed.

Moreover, even when signed, the deal would have to be ratified by all 27 members of the European Union, some of which will not contemplate such a step without a shift in policy from Kiev.

Mr. Fesenko said some of Mr. Yanukovich’s advisers had convinced him that Europe was bluffing and would not sacrifice the integration project for the sake of Ms. Tymoshenko.

“Then, later, people were afraid to approach him and tell him the bad news,” Mr. Fesenko said. “It’s a phenomenon of authoritarian regimes.”

Advocates of Western engagement on Tuesday worried that Mr. Yanukovich, angry over the snub, would reorient Ukraine’s trajectory toward Moscow.

Russia has long hoped to persuade Ukraine to join a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, dangling the incentive of discounted gas prices.

A Ukrainian official said Europe could permanently affect Ukraine’s historic trajectory by isolating Mr. Yanukovich.

“There may be discontent with Yanukovich in the West, but he is the president of Ukraine,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s diplomatic delicacy.

“What are you going to do — sit and wait until Ukraine becomes a client of Russia? Or can the E.U. put its values in a deep pocket and look, instead, at its interests?

“The interests are to keep Ukraine in and not out,” the official added. “Geopolitics is what matters.”

The risk that a tough stand by Europe could strengthen Russia’s hand was spelled out by Sergei Tigipko, vice prime minister of Ukraine, in an interview published on Tuesday.

“If the European Union gives us an absolutely clear ‘no’ signal, the likelihood of reorienting toward the Customs Union is quite high,” he said.

It is not clear what the European Union’s next steps will be, given that the organization has sunk enormous effort into negotiating an agreement with Ukraine.

A senior Western diplomat said Mr. Yanukovich’s travel this week would give the union some time to regroup.

“I think going to Cuba and Brazil for a while may not be the worst thing” for Mr. Yanukovich to do, the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with protocol.

“We’ll have to find a way to appeal to his better self.”

Source: The New York Times