Tymoshenko trial jeopardises Ukraine trade deal, warns EU
The EU is threatening to downgrade relations with Ukraine and frustrate its attempts to move closer into Europes orbit unless the former Soviet republic drops a landmark case rapidly heading towards a verdict against its former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraines president, has been warned that Europe sees the case against Tymoshenko as a politically motivated attempt to silence his chief rival.
EU officials say a conviction would be "incompatible with EU values" and jeopardise the finalisation of a free trade agreement that would solidify the countrys ties to Brussels.
Speaking in Yalta after a two-hour private meeting with Yanukovych, Stefan Fule, the EU enlargement minister, said relations would "be hardly the same between the EU and Ukraine" if the charges against Tymoshenko were not dropped.
He had made clear, he said, that the case amounted to no less than a judgment on the democratic credentials needed to forge close ties with the bloc.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said: "Clearly this particular trial is conducted under laws that would have no place in any other European country and should have no place in a country aspiring to European membership."
Tymoshenkos trial is due to resume on Tuesday, after a surprise two-week delay.
Optimists saw the delay as a sign Yanukovych was looking for a way to give in to EU demands without losing face, while cynics said he hoped to avoid the topic being raised ahead of several EU-Ukraine meetings.
Tymoshenko was charged in May with exceeding her authority as prime minister when she signed a 2009 gas deal with the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to put an end to a disruptive gas war that had left much of eastern Europe freezing.
The deal left Ukraine saddled with what Yanukovychs administration considers an intolerably high price. Yanukovychs attempts to renegotiate the deal with Moscow have so far been rebuffed, prompting him to threaten taking the issue to an international court.
Yanukovych flew to Moscow on Saturday for rare talks with Putin and the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev.
The informal visit, coming shortly after the announcement of Putins bid to return to the Kremlin, was designed to ease tensions.
Russias leaders are said to want Ukraine to forego closer ties with the EU in favour of a Moscow-led customs union that is the latest Russian attempt to solidify its influence in the region.
Tymoshenko has used the trial as a platform to denounce a growing democratic deficit since Yanukovych came to power last year.
She called the judge a puppet and accused the president of attacking his rivals "just like Stalin".
On 5 August she was detained for violating court rules and has been languishing in a Kiev jail ever since.
Supporters and friends, both Ukrainian and European, have been refused permission to visit her and have begun to worry about her physical and mental health.
"She will have to be quite strong in order to overcome this, " said Arseny Yatsenyuk, a former parliament speaker and current opposition leader. "Its clear this is not a war on corruption, this a war on political opposition."
Ukrainian officials have denied Tymoshenko is the target of a witch hunt.
Mario David, a European MP, said during a visit to Ukraine this month: "This is too much of a political trial. When its not only Tymoshenko, but 17 people in her government that are facing problems with justice, that is too much of a co-ordinated effort to make the opposition collapse."
Yanukovych, whose election was seen as ringing the death knell for Ukraines western-leaning Orange Revolution, has been at pains to promote a "pragmatic" foreign policy that would balance the country between Europe and Russia, the countrys former overlord.
Early overtures to Russia – including dropping attempts to join Nato and extending by 25 years Moscows right to base its Black Sea fleet in the Crimea – have been overshadowed by Yanukovychs refusal to give up on the dream of EU membership. Now, opposition MPs have introduced a bill that would change the law under which Tymoshenko has been charged, giving Yanukovych a possible exit.
Tymoshenko faces 10 years in prison if convicted. There are worries she will be convicted and then pardoned, which would release her from prison but ban her from politics. EU officials say that is not enough.
"That would put Yanukovych in a situation like Burma, " said Anders Aslund, a former adviser to the Ukrainian government, referring to the case of Aung San Suu Kyi.
"They want to sentence her and then ban her, but the cost is simply too high."