In Ukraine, Fallout From Tymoshenko Case Strains Ties with EU

BY Larisa Epatko  October 20, 2011 at 2:09 PM EST

When former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail for actions she took while in office, there were no demonstrations in the streets but a sense of concern in some quarters about the direction of the country.

Tymoshenko was convicted Oct. 11 of abuse of office for negotiating a natural gas purchasing agreement with Russia that critics said would cost Ukraine too much. Her sentence prompted international rebukes.

The White House issued a statement expressing disappointment with the verdict — calling the prosecution “politically motivated” — and saying Tymoshenko and other former government officials should be given unrestricted ability to participate in political life, including parliamentary elections next year.

Ukraine continued to feel repercussions this week when the European Union postponed a meeting in Brussels with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, saying it would reschedule it once there was progress made toward the rule of law and an independent judiciary in Ukraine. The meeting was to advance a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in elections last year, told reporters on Monday that he would not yield to outside pressures:

“I am not going to go begging to anyone. If there is a need to meet someone — I am ready. If not, then I’ll just continue on my way. We (and the EU) are partners and we have mutual obligations,” he said.

The trade talks with the EU continued with Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuyev, and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said Thursday that an agreement was reached but hinged on Kiev’s treatment of Tymoshenko.

“Now it’s up to the Ukrainian leadership to create the political conditions so this deal can materialise, and I hope this can happen very soon,” said De Gucht, referring to Tymoshenko’s case.

Ukraine is seeking closer ties with the European Union and eventual membership. Russia has been trying to get Ukraine to instead join a Customs Union which eases trade among Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Reaction among Ukrainians themselves to the trial and conviction has been mixed, according to David Stern, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Kiev. “Some people thought she had what was coming to her,” and that she was a corrupt politician, he said. “Her firm supporters were outraged at the verdict” and others expressed concern about the country’s path.

Some of the more anti-government media outlets painted the trial in apocalyptic tones, saying Ukraine was going down the path of Belarus and an authoritative regime, he said. “I think that might be going a little bit too far,” he added.

“The important thing is to see how this plays abroad,” both with the EU’s reaction and how Ukraine interacts with Russia, said Stern. “In some ways, it’s a game of bluff. Ukraine is seeing how far the Europeans will go, the Europeans are seeing if Ukraine is going toward Russia, and the Russians are looking to see what will happen.”

Photo of Yulia Tymoshenko by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.

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