Ukraine Refuses To Free Ex-Leader, Raising Concerns Over EU Talks

MOSCOW, Russia -- The Ukrainian Parliament overwhelmingly rejected legislation on Thursday that would have freed the country’s jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, and allowed her to seek medical treatment in Germany.

Foreign Minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevicius

The rejection imperiled a package of political and free trade agreements meant to pave the way for Ukraine to join the European Union.

As conditions for moving ahead, the European Commission had demanded that Ukraine take steps to overhaul its courts and its parliamentary elections, and curtail “selective justice,” which some officials said meant freeing Ms. Tymoshenko, the main rival of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

The Russian government has maneuvered forcefully to derail the agreements between the union and Ukraine, the largest of several ex-Soviet republics in negotiations with the Europeans.

If the accords are not signed on schedule next week at a major conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, it would mark a stunning political victory for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Conflicting actions and statements emerged from the highest levels of the Ukrainian government on Thursday.

The cabinet of ministers issued a decree ordering the government “to suspend” preparations for concluding the agreements with Europe.

The cabinet said that it was acting in the interests of national security and that instead of planning to sign the agreements it would prepare for negotiations with the European Union and Russia.

At virtually the same time, Mr. Yanukovich, who has met with Mr. Putin twice in Moscow twice in recent days and was in Vienna on Thursday, issued a statement saying, “Ukraine has been and will continue to pursue the path to European integration.”

In Brussels, reports that Ukraine had decided to suspend preparations for a deal with the European Union sent officials scrambling to figure out the meaning of Kiev’s latest flip-flop.

Linas Linkevicius, the foreign minister of Lithuania, the host for next week’s summit meeting in Vilnius, said Ukraine had long been sending “mixed messages” so it was hard to know whether it has really reached a final decision to back away from Europe.

“I am not very optimistic, I will not deny it. But it is not the end of the game,” said Mr. Linkevicius, whose country currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.

He added that if Ukraine passes up the chance of signing a deal at next week’s Vilnius summit it will have very little chance of doing so in future.

“The probability is likely close to zero,” he said.

Ukraine’s apparent decision to back away from closer ties with Europe threatened to upend the so-called Eastern Partnership program, an unusually ambitious policy initiative by the European Union, an organization that generally shuns risky ventures in favor of tiny incremental measures.

Without Ukraine, “the entire idea of the Eastern Partnership seems to go down the drain,” said Steven Blockmans, the head of foreign policy research at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels policy research group.

Ukraine’s announcement Thursday delivered a particularly hard jolt to Brussels as it followed just a few hours after a relatively upbeat statement about Ukraine’s intentions by Stefan Fule, the European Commission’s senior official responsible for relations with neighboring countries.

After a visit to Kiev this week, Mr. Fule said late Wednesday that Ukraine had made “considerable progress” toward meeting Europe’s demands and added that he looked forward to it signing an association agreement next week in Vilnius.

Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, issued a cautious statement, noting that Europe wants a Ukraine “which shares our values and travels with us on its path to more freedom and prosperity.”

Germany remains interested in good and genuine partnership, he added.

“But that presumes that In Kiev there is the will to pursue a European path of development.”

Others, however, reacted pessimistically, suggesting that, for the moment at least, the accords were effectively dead.

“Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin,” the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, posted on Twitter.

“Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”

The West has long criticized the conviction of Ms. Tymoshenko on abuse of authority charges and her seven-year prison sentence, saying they were a politically motivated effort to sideline her.

Russia, meanwhile, has viewed the trade deal with the European Union as a serious threat – an economic version of the West’s effort to build military power by expanding NATO.

Ms. Tymoshenko’s release, however, was never specifically set as a condition for signing the accords, and some European Union countries have said it would be unwise to scuttle the deals over the issue, given the risk of pushing Ukraine closer to Russia.

The most decisive action on Thursday was taken by the Ukrainian Parliament, called the Verkhovna Rada, which overwhelmingly rejected six different bills related to the treatment of prisoners that were intended to address Ms. Tymoshenko’s case.

The Parliament postponed debate on a bill to overhaul to overhaul the judiciary, but it adopted changes to the country’s election laws by a wide margin.

Opposition leaders in Parliament, including members of Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party and leaders of the nationalist Svoboda party, accused Mr. Yanukovich of torpedoing Ukraine’s chances for integration with Western Europe. 

“President Yanukovich is personally stopping Ukraine’s road to Europe,” said Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, a former minister of economy and foreign minister, who is the leader of the Fatherland members of Parliament.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, accused European leaders of hypocrisy this week, saying that they and not Russia were strong-arming Ukraine and other countries into signing the so-called “Eastern Partnership” agreements.

“None in the European Union have ever pronounced the phrases that we use to present our position on the Eastern Partnership – ‘This is a sovereign choice of every individual state,’ ” Mr. Lavorov said.

“Not a single European official has ever said this phrase.

They say, ‘You have to make a choice, and choose the European Union.’

Mr. Putin said on Thursday that Mr. Yanukovich had suggested three-way talks among Ukraine, Russia and the European Union, and that Russia was willing to participate in such talks, but only if Ukraine delays signing the political accord with the union.

“How can we hold negotiations on issues that have already been agreed upon and endorsed?” Mr. Putin said after a meeting with literary figures in Moscow.

Ukraine is the largest of the former Soviet republics in talks with the Europeans, and it has moved the farthest in its efforts toward potential membership in the union.

Ukraine’s domestic politics are deeply entwined with the country’s relationship to Russia, and Mr. Yanukovich is widely viewed as calculating the implications of his decisions for his plans to seek re-election in 2015.

Mr. Yanukovich’s political base is in the largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern sections of the country, which generally favor closers relations with Russia.

Younger voters, and those in the central and western sections of the country, are more likely to favor integration with Europe; he would need at least some of their support to win a second term.

At the same time, Ukraine is facing severe economic problems and will probably need a large infusion of credit.

Those problems would be likely to worsen if Russia follows through with threats of wide-ranging trade sanctions as retaliation for signing the deals with Europe.

The International Monetary Fund has put together a loan package worth more than $800 million for Ukraine; it was not clear whether Russia had also offered economic assistance.

In recent months, the Kremlin has issued heavy threats and taken a series of aggressive steps to dissuade the ex-Soviet republics from signing the agreements.

In September, after a meeting with Mr. Putin in Moscow, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia abruptly announced that his country was abandoning talks with the European Union and would instead join a customs union that Russia has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Armenia relies heavily on Russia, especially on security issues related to its ongoing war with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and had little leverage to oppose Mr. Putin’s entreaties that it join the customs union.

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest Mr. Sargsyan’s decision, saying Armenia had little to gain from Russia’s customs group.

Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, is expected to move forward with the agreements in Vilnius even though Russia has banned imports of Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports, and has threatened an array of other repercussions including an immigration crackdown on more than 100,000 Moldovans working in Russia.

Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and remains in bitter conflict with Russia over the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is also planning to move forward with the accords.

At his inauguration on Sunday, the country’s new president, Giorgi Margvelashvili said Georgia hopes to join the European Union and NATO.

Source: The New York Times