Huffing and bluffing: Time running out for Ukraine over Tymoshenko

The European Union has had enough of Ukraine’s “bluffing” over jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko – and now it seems landmark agreements may hang on the situation’s resolution.

Two EU ministers met with Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday seeking a compromise over Tymoshenko, who was controversially jailed on embezzlement and abuse of power charges in 2011.

Viktor Yanukovich
Time may be running out for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Foreign ministers Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt, of Poland and Sweden respectively, urged Yanukovich to reach a deal to secure her release, and warned that future trade deals were likely to be impacted by further diplomatic delay.

“The time for bluffing is over on both sides now,” Sikorski said following an hour’s discussion in Kiev. “It’s time for action.”

Tymoshenko was charged with malfeasance over a deal allegedly forced between gas companies Gazprom of Russia and Naftogaz of Ukraine in 2009. It was part of a complex scenario which came to a head when Russia cut gas supplies to the country in January that year.

Tymoshenko’s sentence was condemned by a number of countries and human rights organisations, including crucially the EU itself, with many labelling it “selective justice” and “political persecution”.

“Selective justice” is precisely what the European Union wants rid of as it works to secure deals with former Soviet states in the east.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski and Pat Cox, a politician in Ireland, have been acting as envoys for the EU in Ukraine focused largely on this case. So far they have not been able to force Yanukovich’s hand.

While the current status of their negotiations is not clear, this week the pair warned the President that “time to secure a viable settlement is running out”.

Landmark move

Yulia Tymoshenko
Yulia Tymoshenko is not scheduled for release until 2018.

The case leaves Yanukovich with a dilemma. Tymoshenko was, and arguably still is, his greatest political threat, and it is unlikely he will chase her release before his re-election campaign in 2015.

But at the same time, integration with Europe is something he has been keen to secure during his tenure as President – potentially keen enough to buckle under pressure.

Details of the free trade and association agreements due to be signed in Lithuanian capital Vilnius are currently vague, but they would be a landmark move towards the EU for a country with very deep historical and political ties to Russia.

Yanukovich has already announced his willingness to allow her to leave Ukraine for spinal treatment, but has made no pledges to pardon her or drop any of the ten official criminal investigations currently underway into her activities.

“Certainly, I will sign the law in case the Parliament approves it,” he told journalists at a press conference in Donetsk this week. The law would likely require Tymoshenko to return immediately to Ukraine, which would invalidate her from next year’s election campaigns.

“That opens up the question what happens thereafter. Will Ukraine demand she is extradited and brought back to prison? That would be a detour not a solution,” Carl Bildt told reporters on Monday, before he met with Yanukovich later in the week.

Her party said in a statement that a new law was not necessary and signifies more stalling: “Ending the problem of politically-motivated justice and solving the problem of Yulia Tymoshenko lies exclusively with President Viktor Yanukovych.”

Image credit: People’s Party

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