Ukraine's hopes of signing landmark political and trade deals with the European Union hang in the balance amid wrangling over the fate of jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
The EU has told Kiev that it will only be offered political association and free trade pacts next month if it resolves the case of Ms Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years in 2011 for abusing her power by signing a gas deal with Russia that prosecutors said was ruinously expensive for Ukraine.
The EU and United States say Ms Tymoshenko is the victim of political persecution by courts loyal to president Viktor Yanukovich, who is determined to sign the deals with Brussels but is reluctant to free his most outspoken and dangerous political rival. Deputies from Mr Yanukovich's party have drawn up draft laws that would allow Ms Tymoshenko to leave jail and travel abroad for treatment for chronic back problems.
The proposals foresee her returning to Ukraine to finish her jail term once the treatment is over, however, something that her allies say is unacceptable.
They are pushing for a pardon for Ms Tymoshenko, who has agreed to go to Germany for treatment but also vows to topple Mr Yanukovich, whom she accuses of leading a corrupt oligarchy.
“Even if Tymoshenko herself has agreed to such an option, the European Union has not,” Arseny Yatsenyuk, a leader of Ms Tymoshenko’s party, said of the the suggestion that she be allowed to receive treatment abroad before returning home to complete her prison term.
“The key demand of the European Union is a cessation of political persecution,” he added.
European Union foreign ministers have also expressed scepticism about the proposal from Mr Yanukovich’s party.
"That opens up the question of what happens thereafter. Will Ukraine demand that she is extradited and brought back to prison? I would be very sceptical towards a solution of that sort," said Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt this week. After a visit to Kiev on Tuesday, Mr Bildt said the EU's patience – and time – was running out.
Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who was also in Kiev, added: "The time for bluffing is over on both sides. It's time for action now."
The ministers said the EU's decision would hinge on a report from the bloc's envoys to Ukraine, Irish politician Pat Cox and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski.