With only two short weeks until the opening of the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in Lithuania, the EU is still hesitant to green-light Ukraine's free-trade deal and association agreement. Geopolitical stakes are high with Russia anxious to strong-arm the country into its own competing Eurasian Customs Union. With tension mounting, Europe is worried about pushing Russia too far, preferring instead to hide behind the Tymoshenko issue.
In a gesture of disappointment, the European Parliament decided yesterday to prolong the Union's monitoring mission closely following the fate of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently imprisoned on corruption charges. The decision was taken the day after Ukraine's parliament failed to pass a bill that would have allowed Ms. Tymoshenko to be released for medical treatment in Germany. Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish President heading the mission, warned the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN that "failure to sign in Vilnius would mean the postponing of the agreement for an indefinite number of years."
Ukrainian politicians have been desperately trying to find a solution to the impasse over the past weeks. The country's president, Viktor Yanukovych, has stated that he's willing to let Tymoshenko leave the country for medical treatment, but won't let her off the hook completely. Speaking Thursday, Yanukovych reiterated that the former prime minister would not be allowed to evade criminal responsibility and would be expected to return to Ukraine after treatment to continue serving her sentence. With the backing of the EU, Tymoshenko allies, however, are refusing to budge from their demand for a full pardon.
Yulia Tymoshenko was convicted of abuse of power and handed a seven-year sentence in October 2011. Prosecutors alleged that she had abused her power during negotiations between Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukrainy on purchase and transit fees. The former head of government has also been tied to the trafficking of contraband gas and bribery of top government officials while president of Ukraine's natural gas-trading company, United Energy Systems of Ukraine.
Although Tymoshenko has been implicated in shady affairs in the past, many in Europe saw in her conviction political motives. Henchmen close to current President Yanukovych have enjoyed less scrutiny from the justice system and the president certainly stands to benefit politically from having his strongest potential opponent in 2015 presidential elections behind bars. The former prime minister can also count on a network of vocal political supporters and allies in Western capitals.
Delving beneath the "selective justice" narrative woven by activists in the West, the affair becomes much less black and white. Tymoshenko certainly received no favours from Yanukovych's government, and there may have been active support for the prosecution, but a cursory look at her murky past makes her much less of a victim than she is portrayed in the West. Above all, it is puzzling that the EU would put so much importance on an empty and highly over-simplified symbolic gesture.
Despite all that is at stake, Western capitals are obstinately blocking the agreement over Ms. Tymoshenko's release, while watering down many other legitimate demands to reform the political and economic system. Behind the stubbornness is a fear of pushing their Eastern neighbour Russia too far.
As it became increasingly clear over the summer that Kiev intended to snub its former Soviet masters and sign the agreements with the EU, Russia ratcheted up the pressure on Ukraine, launching mini-trade wars and threatening to cut of gas to their energy-dependent neighbor. Russia has long enjoyed close ties with Ukraine and desperately wants the country to join its own competing trade bloc, the Eurasian Customs Union.
Despite the common history and culture shared between the two countries, Ukraine has continued to drift towards the West since gaining independence in the early 1990s. A younger generation is looking to the West for culture and economic opportunities, while Russia, increasingly addic ted to oil and gas, which make up two-thirds of its economic output, has become more and more aggressive with its neighbours.
Europe is worried that improving relations with its Eastern neighbors, the last post-Soviet buffer between the EU and Russia, will raise hairs in the Kremlin. This may be very well be true and Europe has little to gain from poor relations with such an important neighbour, but it has much more to lose from abandoning Ukraine. A deal at Vilnius in Ukraine is an essential step to creating a more stable and prosperous country on Europe's border.