KIEV — So Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is still a prisoner — and Ukraine's future as part of the European Union hangs in the balance.
The Ukrainian Parliament balked Wednesday night on any decision to release the opposition leader, who has been jailed since 2011. Meanwhile, the EU has sent Kiev a clear message: If Tymoshenko stays in, Ukraine stays out.
Ukraine was expected to sign an accession agreement with Brussels on Nov. 28, paving the way towards becoming the 29th member of the European Union. But the fate of the former prime minister and one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) stands in the way, as Tymoshenko continues to serve a sentence on charges of abuse of power, a conviction that is regarded by the EU as politically motivated.
Tymoshenko, who is reported to have health problems, is currently serving her seven-year sentence in a hospital under police surveillance.
The current Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovytch, who won the 2010 presidential elections against Tymoshenko, is accused by many to have pulled the strings in her case.
“I am sure that President Yanukovytch wants to sign the accession agreement,” said Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president, who together with Ireland's Pat Cox, the former head of the European Parliament, is leading an EU mission to negotiate the release of Tymoshenko.
The two European politicians came to Ukraine to observe the Parliament's voting on a bill allowing the imprisoned to leave abroad for health treatments. It is an open secret that the new law aims to create a gateway for Tymoshenko to accept the offer of medical care in Germany.
On Wednesday night, Kwasniewski and Cox were supposed to report back in Brussels on the results of their mission, but left Kiev empty-handed as the Ukrainian deputies decided to postpone the voting over the changes to the criminal code. Parliament chief Wolodymyr Rybak announced the end of the session shortly after it had started, explaining that the opposition and the ruling party could not come to an agreement over the bill that would set Tymoshenko free.
What should happen with the former prime minister after her treatment in Germany remains the main bone of contention. Whereas the opposition wants the automatic cancellation of the penalty, Yanukovych’s camp wants Tymoshenko back in jail.
One more chance?
If it is not for the sake of justice, it is surely in the ruling president’s best interests. If liberated, Tymoshenko — the most popular politician of the opposition — could become a formidable challenger for Yanukovytch in his 2015 bid for reelection.
The EU emissaries, who understand well the rules of the Ukrainian political game, were showing their poker faces as they exited the Wednesday parliamentary session. “We understand why the agreement could not be made today,” said Kwasniewski. “Nevertheless, we expect the final decision to be made on the next session of the parliament, on Nov. 19.”
The voting over the new criminal law is also being followed closely in Moscow. Russians are monitoring the Ukrainian aspiration to join the EU with a skeptical eye, aiming to keep their neighbor within their sphere of influence.
Reports say Moscow has offered financial aid to help plug Kiev’s leaky budget. On the other hand, the United States put pressure on the International Monetary Fund to unblock a loan program worth $15 billion. The only condition that the IMF imposes — the gas price rise — is however rejected by Yanukovytch who is afraid to loose his popularity before the elections in 2015.
“Signing the agreement with the EU would make Ukraine much more reliable in the IMF's eyes,” a source in Brussels told us.
Pat Cox declared on Wednesday that "our patience has been greatly tested ... but our good will remains undiminished."
Still, the overall mood in Brussels is growing ever more skeptical. “Some of the Western foreign ministries think that Kiev disregards the EU,” a senior EU diplomat says. Others note that Yanukovych is suspected of trying to secure benefits from both Moscow and the EU.
Jacek Saryusz Wolski, a Polish member of the European Parliament, said the latest non-decision is a bad sign. "The constant delaying has made many in the EU lose hope about signing the accession agreement,” he said.