Ukraine EU Bid In Balance After Ex-PM Jailing: Analysts

KIEV, Ukraine -- The jailing of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko has dealt a potentially crushing blow to Ukraine's hopes of EU integration and the authorities need to act to prevent further damage, analysts said Tuesday.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The decision by a Kiev court to hand a seven-year sentence to the ex-Soviet state's main opposition leader in her abuse of office trial was met with howls of protest in Brussels, where the trial was slammed as political.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said bluntly that the verdict -- seen by Tymoshenko as a vendetta carried out by her rival President Viktor Yanukovych -- will force the bloc to “reflect on its policies towards Ukraine.”

But the decision was met with equal dismay by political observers in Kiev, who gloomily warned of an end to a drive by Ukraine to join the EU that optimistically began during the 2004 Orange Revolution that Tymoshenko co-headed.

“I cannot imagine the European Union signing the Association Agreement with Ukraine in these conditions,” said Niko Lange, Kiev office chief of Germany's Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation.

“What is important now is not Ukraine's rhetoric but its actions, and its actions do not show Ukraine following a pro-EU course,” Lange said.

The nation of 46 million has often found itself at a crossroads between Russia -- its master from tsarist and Soviet times and more recently its main supplier of energy -- and Europe.

The Orange Revolution leaders saw their salvation in the European Union, targeting full membership as a realistic goal for Ukraine.

By the time Tymoshenko lost most of her Orange team to infighting and was eventually beaten by the seemingly pro-Russian Yanukovych in presidential elections last year, Ukraine's EU aspirations seemed dashed.

But Yanukovych confounded many by paying his first official trip to Brussels and then making clear that he intended for Ukraine to become a full member of the EU and not an economic bloc backed by Russia.

The first steps focused on an Association Agreement, a basic document that the EU signs with prospective members that was seen in Kiev as the start of the long membership process.

But analysts said that despite the warnings, all was not yet lost for Ukraine.

Yanukovych himself dropped a hint that the case of Tymoshenko was not finished only hours after the verdict was read, pointing to a possible solution to end what appears set to turn into a full diplomatic crisis.

“It has made the European Union anxious and we understand why this is so,” the president told reporters.

“Today the court took its decision in the framework of the current criminal code. This is not the final decision.”

He appeared to be referring to a change in the laws under which Tymoshenko was punished -- a move analysts said would ensure her quickest release.

“There is still a chance for a compromise,” said Olexiy Haran, who heads the School for Policy Analysis at the Kiev Mohyla Academy.

“They can either decriminalise the statute, or the appeals court overturns the decision and sends the case for further investigation,” Haran said.

Yanukovych has already submitted a bill to parliament easing sentences for some economic crimes, and his Regions Party is now debating whether to add Tymoshenko's charge to the package.

It has failed to act thus far, although some analysts expect a decision within weeks.

“I think the chances of the legislation being changed are enormous ... because it would be a huge mistake to leave everything as it is,” said Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Centre for Political and Conflict Studies.

“The country's authorities have repeatedly said they plan to continue with their European course,” said the analyst.

Source: Times Online