Ukraine dismisses western concerns over elections


UKRAINE’S PARLIAMENTARY election on Sunday will be free and fair, and should open the way for the country to forge closer relations with the European Union under Ireland’s presidency of the bloc next year, according to Kiev’s foreign minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko.

He dismissed western fears for Ukraine’s democracy and insisted its ties with Brussels should not be linked to the fate of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is languishing in jail after a trial that Brussels and Washington denounced as politically motivated.

Gryshchenko said a new election law and the presence of thousands of monitors on Sunday “give us no reason to doubt that the election will reflect the will of the people”.

He spoke to The Irish Times yesterday, after US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton jointly noted “worrying trends” in Ukraine, including alleged vote-buying and “reports of the use of administrative resources to favour ruling party candidates, and the difficulties several media outlets face”.

They also expressed “regret that the convictions of opposition leaders during trials that did not meet international standards are preventing them from standing in parliamentary elections”.

The Ukrainian government needs to address these selective prosecutions, including the case of Tymoshenko and of other former senior officials, they said.

Tymoshenko’s bloc is running without her in the ballot, and surveys show it fighting for second place with a new liberal party called Udar (Punch), led by world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.

Polls give the Regions Party of president Viktor Yanukovich a lead of several points over its two main rivals, whose challenge to the ruling party has been undermined by lingering mutual mistrust that has prevented them forging a genuine alliance.

Yanukovich narrowly beat Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential election, and then set about restoring traditionally strong ties with Russia that were damaged after the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004 brought to power strongly pro-western politicians such as Tymoshenko.

Despite claiming that he wanted to pursue deeper integration with the EU, Yanukovich came under heavy western criticism for alleged suppression of critical media and for the prosecution of Tymoshenko and allies including former minister Yuri Lutsenko.

Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years last October for abusing her power by signing a gas deal with Russia that was allegedly crippling for Ukraine.

She is also accused of tax evasion and is being investigated for involvement in the murder of a business rival and his wife in 1996.

Tymoshenko denies all the charges against her, calling them part of Yanukovich’s bid to sideline his most dangerous rival, and she claims she has been mistreated in prison and needs medical treatment abroad for serious back problems.

Her case has become a major obstacle to Ukraine’s push to sign landmark deals with the EU on political association and trade integration.

“Obviously I regret a situation where we have to devote so much time to an issue that does not represent the basic interests of the people of both the Ukraine and the EU,” Gryshchenko said, noting that he did not see her case, “as linked in any way with the association agreement.”

“This agreement is not a gift to Ukraine. It is an instrument to promote what we are striving for together,” he added, stressing that Ukraine offers major economic opportunities for EU firms and can help restore growth to the bloc by facilitating access to markets in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

“We see Ireland’s EU presidency as an opportunity to really move ahead with the important practical and political agenda of signing the agreement and starting the process of ratification,” Gryshchenko said.

Lucinda Creighton, the Minister for State for European affairs, noted last week that Ireland would be “watching Ukraine’s elections very closely”.

“There are many things that we are unhappy with in relation to Ukraine . . . but we need to be independent, neutral and take objective decisions,” she added.

“These elections will be a crucial factor and will have a direct bearing on what will happen next year.”