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Why the Tymoshenko case matters

Yulia Tymoshenko's release will be a top priority for the upcoming EU-Ukraine negotiations on a trade agreement.

Last updated: 18 Nov 2013 09:15
Rosa Balfour

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.
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A parliament vote on a law resulting in the release of jailed Yulia Tymoshenko is crucial for Ukraine's rapprochement with the EU [Reuters]

A drama has been unfolding in Europe for the past two years and it is about to reach momentous times. The Ukrainian Parliament has not decided whether to allow Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition party, in prison since 2011, to get medical treatment abroad. Unless it rectifies this on November 19, the European Union is unlikely to sign an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA)  with Ukraine at the summit of European states involving the EU and six Eastern European countries, which will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 28 and 29.

The stage for the drama is set in Ukraine, but the backstage developments are important for the whole region, from Europe to Russia. Tymoshenko is the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ended the authoritarian regime of Leonid Kuchma, and heralded a new era for Ukraine. After centuries of being a part of first the Tsarist empire and then the Soviet Union, Ukraine was getting closer to the EU and further away from Moscow,  In 2004, the revolutionaries defeated Viktor Yanukovich, but the pendulum swung in his favour again in 2010, when he was elected president of Ukraine.

Since then, his arch rival Tymoshenko is seen as the only political figure capable of defeating him in the 2015 presidential elections. For this reason, Yanukovich is adamant that she should not be able to return to politics. In 2011, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office and embezzlement in dealings with Gazprom while she was energy minister. Given the state of Ukraine's judiciary, the claim that the sentence was politically motivated is not hard to believe.

High stakes

The EU has conditioned the signing of these agreements, which would increase the economic integration between Ukraine and EU countries, to her release (ending "selective justice"), and to meet a set of political standards.

The conditions reflect the EU's so-called values in its dealings with neighbouring countries, but in this case, they essentially revolved around Tymoshenko herself, to whom many of her friends and colleagues in the European People's Party are tied. Unable to backtrack on political statements and unwilling to soften their positions, the two sides talked themselves into a corner since talk of the agreements was initiated in May 2012.

Since then, the stakes in the region have gone up. The six countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) have been at the centre of a geopolitical competition between Russia and the EU, even if the EU would deny that it has adopted an antagonistic approach. The EU has been offering DCFTAs to the six countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus as part of its efforts to step up engagement, and to offer more long-term incentives for economic integration, such as access to EU markets.

One side effect was to make German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads a country which in the past has been soft on Russia, more combative towards Moscow.

Moscow's role

Moscow has shown to have learned the "soft power" lessons, the EU has been displaying in the region, by offering similar but competing packages to these countries. Last September, much to Brussels' shock, Armenia announced that it would join the Eurasian Customs Union together with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Small Moldova seems committed to its European option; energy-rich Azerbaijan is not interested. With Ukraine and Georgia hanging in the balance, the record of Europe's two-decade long engagement in the whole region risks being dismal indeed.

These tactics have also had the side effect of alienating the EU. Many countries which, during the Cold War were in the Russian orbit, are very sensitive to some moves. Russia recently blocked imports of Lithuanian dairy products claiming quality concerns. In Europe this was widely interpreted as pressure on the country hosting the summit at the end of November. One side effect was to make German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads a country which in the past has been soft on Russia, more combative towards Moscow.

But finding a solution, which will square the circle around the political and democratic principles the EU professes and the geopolitical interests in keeping a large country close to Europe, is proving difficult. Such a solution has to also be acceptable to the Ukrainian political leaders who have built their political careers on the rivalry with Tymoshenko, and finally one which will not overly sour relations with Moscow which continue to be paramount.

All indications, so far, are that the EU will not sign. But it is also giving the Ukrainian parliament more time in the hope that a solution can be fudged. Indeed, it is a catch-22 situation. Giving in to Yanukovich would render the EU's principles and policies based on them, a joke. How can it be credible in the whole region and beyond on human rights, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary, if it will not stand by them in moments of crisis? But at the same time, not signing the DCFTA and AA shows the cracks in the policy set up for the region.

These tend to be considered in Brussels as the "best deals" the EU has to offer. If the EU cannot persuade Ukraine of this, it needs to seriously rethink its policies and relevance in that part of the world.

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think-tank based in Brussels. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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