Medvedev Yanukovich
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich smile during a meeting in Donetsk Oct. 18 as Brussels postponed a scheduled meeting with Yanukovych amid a growing diplomatic crisis. Medvedev said he viewed the seven-year jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko as an internal matter.

Region: Looking the other way

Brussels cancels meeting with Yanukovych in the wake of Tymoshenko’s conviction

The European Union’s harsh reaction to the conviction of Ukraine’s former prime minister and opposition leader has put at risk talks of a strategic relationship between the bloc and Kyiv, even as both sides completed negotiations on a trade agreement Oct. 19.

The previous day, EU officials abruptly called off a meeting with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych scheduled for later in the week, giving clear indication that efforts to draw the EU and its eastern neighbor closer together are beginning to break down.

Brussels has said it will reschedule the meeting under the condition that Ukraine takes appropriate “democratic steps” to ensure the independence of its judiciary.

The trial and conviction of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko enraged Western leaders who claim the abuse of power charges leveled against Yanukovych’s outspoken critic were the type of political persecution practiced by authoritarian regimes. Throughout the trial, Yanukovych maintained the charges were not political and that he would not interfere with the legal system. But Yanukovych, who has long considered EU integration his greatest priority as president, eventually seemed to be considering ways to lessen the fallout from the international community over Tymoshenko’s trial. Prior to the beginning of Tymoshenko’s defense in September, the judge suspended the trial for two weeks, and experts began to suspect a deal was being worked out to end the trial, allowing Yanukovych to save face internationally.

But the trial continued, and Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison. Soon after, many European leaders indicated Yanukovych was working out a plan that would allow her sentence to be suspended. But the president has remained defiant, telling journalists Oct. 17 he had no plans to give in to pressure from EU officials to set Tymoshenko free.

“One of the reasons the EU has reacted so harshly is they feel they’ve been hoodwinked twice by Yanukovych,” said Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow with the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations. “The EU is entirely right to have taken the tough line with Ukraine. And in many ways they can and should be even tougher. Yanukovych’s biggest problem in dealing with the EU is his belief that the rest of the world is as cynical as he is.

“Ukraine is always said to be at a crossroads, and because of this miscalculation, now they actually are.”

In an interview with the Brussels website EUObserver.com, the Ukraine ambassador to the EU, Kostyantyn Yeliseyev, said some EU governments already against the enlargement of the bloc are using the Tymoshenko trial as a “pretext” to halt further integration with Kyiv.

“If you ask EU officials, they say the climate is not conducive [for further negotiations with Ukraine],” he told the website. “If you use the same criterion of a conducive climate … you could cancel about 80 percent of EU talks.”

Back to Russia

The fear among many in Brussels is that a rebuke from the EU will force Ukraine to look east and strengthen its strategic ties with Russia. Moscow has made several overtures to Ukraine in hopes of persuading the country to join a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, even offering discount natural gas prices in exchange for Ukraine’s inclusion. An Oct. 19 New York Times report suggested Yanukovych’s advisers have convinced him the EU is bluffing and would not stall negotiations for further integration with Ukraine over the Tymoshenko conviction out of fear the country will turn back to big brother Russia.

In his interview with EUObserver.com, Yeliseyev said Ukraine is far from prepared to abandon its EU aspirations.

“Some skeptical member states would like to hear from us, ‘You don’t like us. So we are going into the Customs Union [with Russia],’ ” he said. “But this is not the case. I reiterate: This is not the case.”

Analysts say it’s doubtful the EU will back down on its demands that Tymoshenko be freed as a condition to reopen serious integration talks.

“The EU won’t give in but play hardball,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “This is devastating for Ukraine’s relations with the EU. Yanukovych is committing economic and political suicide and doesn’t understand that.”

EU officials still have not decided if they plan on going forward with signing the association agreement with Ukraine as planned in December, which would require the unlikely unanimous ratification of all 27 member states. On Oct. 22, the EU announced it would separate the signing of the free trade agreement with the association agreement just days after Yanukovych said he would not sign any agreement unless it included a promise of future membership.

“The EU has a choice whether or not to take the soft option and have it fall on the member states to reject the agreement or to be less diplomatic about it and raise obstacles for now,” Wilson said. “The EU needs to go for broke, here. It’s the only language Yanukovych seems to understand.”

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