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?

The fate of one woman, now confined to a secluded clinic in eastern Ukraine, is set to decide the fate of relations between her country of 46 million people, the EU and Russia.

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.


Heavy-handed rule
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.

But time is running out, and Yanukovich still seems unsure whether to release his political nemesis, the woman who first humiliated him back in the 2004 Orange Revolution, when she and her allies overturned his fraudulent election "victory" and then beat him in a re-run. Two EU envoys to Ukraine – Pat Cox, the Irish former president of the European Parliament, and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski – have asked Mr Yanukovich to pardon Ms Tymoshenko, and she has accepted an offer of medical treatment in Germany.

Mr Yanukovich has the power to pardon Ms Tymoshenko, but he has repeatedly asked parliament to come up with a new law that would resolve her situation. He appears to be playing for time or seeking to pass responsibility for this crucial decision to parliamentary deputies, or both. A member of his ruling Regions Party has proposed a law that would allow prisoners to go abroad for treatment, but oblige them to return once healthy to complete their sentence in a Ukrainian jail.

Vilnius summit
The EU has made clear that this would not be an acceptable solution, and seems determined to see Ms Tymoshenko go abroad for medical treatment before the Vilnius summit, and be free to return to Ukraine and resume her political career when she wishes. For her part, Ms Tymoshenko has said she will accept whatever the EU deems to be an appropriate solution to the perceived problem of selective justice in Ukraine.

But, from her hospital bed, she made clear her defiance to Mr Yanukovich: “I will never ask for political asylum anywhere and I will not hide abroad,” she said. “I exhausted all my fear a long time ago. I will play the most active part in the process of liberating Ukraine from dictatorship.”

Today Ukraine’s parliament is due to debate several draft laws that could clear the way for Ms Tymoshenko’s release. Ukrainian media report that Mr Cox and Mr Kwasniewski may attend, to be the EU’s “eyes and ears” on what could be a decisive – and turbulent – session. Few people in Ukraine doubt the Regions Party’s majority in parliament would vote according to Mr Yanukovich’s orders.

So whether he uses his presidential pardon or his control over his party, he will decide the fate of Tymoshenko and their country’s relations with the EU and Russia. If he releases her without conditions, he and his party will face a formidable challenge at future elections. If he keeps her in jail, he must say goodbye to closer ties with the EU, seek to soothe an angry Russia, and answer to the electorate for his actions.

"I see no consensus on the part of EU member states to vote for signing . . . unless she is out of prison," Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak said this week, in the latest such comment from a top western diplomat. "We still have some time, but not much."