Time running out for Ukraine to seal EU trade deal by releasing Tymoshenko
Can Yanukovich bring himself to free the politician most likely to oust him?
Riot police block opposition supporters carrying a flag with the portrait of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from entering the city hall during a rally in Kiev on October 23rd. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
If Yulia Tymoshenko is still in that hospital bed in three weeks’ time, then the EU will not offer historic political and trade agreements to Ukraine that could break the Kremlin’s centuries-old grip on the country and align its future with the west.
The EU and US believe the former prime minister is the victim of a politically-motivated prosecution, orchestrated by president Viktor Yanukovich and his allies. He has the power to release her, but can he bring himself to free his most fearsome opponent, the politician most likely to oust him?
The answer must come soon, and maybe even as early as today. Ms Tymoshenko (52) was jailed for seven years in October 2011, for abusing her power as prime minister in 2009 by ordering Ukraine’s state gas firm to sign a supply deal with Russia that prosecutors alleged was ruinously expensive for her country.
Mr Yanukovich says the contract obliged Ukraine to pay hundreds of millions of euro more than necessary for Russian gas; Ms Tymoshenko’s supporters say she clinched a perfectly good deal in the teeth of an escalating winter gas crisis. Several of her allies were also prosecuted for crimes allegedly committed while in government, and her husband successfully sought political asylum in the Czech Republic, as the EU, US and major rights groups intensified criticism of Mr Yanukovich’s heavy-handed rule.
Comparing herself to a victim of Josef Stalin’s purges, Ms Tymoshenko said at her trial: “You know very well that the sentence is not being pronounced by judge [Rodion] Kireyev but by president Viktor Yanukovich . . . Whatever sentence is pronounced, my struggle will continue.” Ms Tymoshenko was sent to prison in Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, and in May 2012 she was transferred to a hospital in the city for treatment of a chronic back problem, believed to be a herniated disc.
But imprisonment and hospitalisation appear to have done little to dampen her fire, or blunt the threat she poses to Mr Yanukovich. Her conviction may have physically removed her from Ukraine’s political field, but she is still the dominant figure in the opposition movement and has become a symbol of the country’s European aspirations: if she is released, the EU will use a November 28th-29th summit to invite Ukraine to take a major step closer; if not, the invitation will be withdrawn.
Under pressure from the EU, Ukraine has freed several of Ms Tymoshenko’s allies and is pushing through major changes to its legal and election systems.
Her imprisonment now appears to be the only obstacle to a deal that could be signed in Lithuania at the end of the month, to create a free trade zone between the EU and Ukraine and deepen co-operation in areas ranging from rule of law to energy supply, foreign policy to security issues – ending Moscow’s traditional hegemony over Ukraine’s political and economic life.