MUNICH — It was two years ago that a Kiev court sent Yulia Tymoshenko to prison for abuse of power. Ukraine's former prime minister had been running short on good press for some time as her lengthy power struggle with former president Viktor Yushchenko had tarnished her positive image as a symbol of the Orange Revolution.

But Tymoshenko's image would start to change yet again after her arrest. The political trial that followed, along with a series of politically motivated accusations, and a serious illness, rehabilitated her in the eyes of the West. From prison, she gradually became the face of the movement for those who wanted Ukraine to move closer to the European Union.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU looked on its eastern neighbor with an almost maternal affection. Reform was slow in coming, as corruption hampered Ukraine’s development. Meanwhile, the elite were too friendly with Russia for the EU’s taste and the country’s industry was hopelessly antiquated. But the world’s attention was drawn back to Ukraine after the protests about rigged elections in 2004 led to the Orange Revolution.

The country was keen to cement ties with the West but didn’t want to lose its close relationship with Russia — an approach that Kiev’s foreign ministry calls “equidistance.” Viktor Yanukovych’s government tried to find a pragmatic solution to the country’s greatest dilemma: How could Ukraine reconcile its economic relationship with Russia and dependency on that country for energy needs, with greater openness to the European market?

When compromise means victory

Now Brussels has made an offer Kiev cannot refuse: an association agreement that could eventually lead to EU membership. Western standards, products, innovation and investment all come as part of the agreement, which should profit both parties, although the Europe's advantage may be mainly in transmitting western values to a post-Soviet country.

The Ukrainian people generally back the agreement, as do the majority of businessmen and opposition politicians. The agreement offers President Yanukovych — who will stand for re-election in 2015 — the chance to create a lasting legacy from his time in office. But it also conflicts with offers from Moscow: entry into the customs union, and eventually a Eurasian economic union. 

The stakes are high for both sides. The Russian government is shaking its fist and issuing threats, but it is also making efforts to entice Ukraine towards stronger ties. If Moscow were to be pushed out of its former sphere of influence, it would set a precedent and therefore undermine the dream of a Eurasian union. However, Russia’s efforts are merely strengthening Brussels’ determination. Now the EU hopes that the long wished-for transformation will finally take place. Ukraine will be stabilized, democratized and pulled away from Moscow.

Yanukovych is in a good bargaining position. If the association agreement does not succeed, it would be a political debacle for the EU. Brussels' conditions for the agreement include reforms of the justice system and electoral law — but it seems likely these may be swept under the carpet in order to secure Yanukovych’s signature, perhaps by the end of November.

There is too much at stake for the EU to turn away. The human symbol of the negotiations, Yulia Tymoshenko, may have left the country by then to be treated for her spinal condition — although the president has not yet indicated whether he will issue a pardon. Brussels would have to content itself with this compromise, and Yanukovych may celebrate another small victory, as it is highly unlikely that his opponent will be able to stand against him in 2015.

Brussels and Kiev are heading towards an agreement, a victory for political realism. But there is still some hope left for the idealists. While this agreement would not transform Ukraine overnight, it would give the EU more influence and set Ukraine on the road to establishing democratic values in everyday life. And that, in the long run, would certainly be a significant victory.