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Exclusive: Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko ‘extremely close’ to being released in EU deal

Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, confirms that a pardon is possible ahead of summit

Ukraine is “extremely close” to securing a deal which would free opposition politician and cause célèbre Yulia Tymoshenko on “humanitarian grounds”, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has confirmed in an interview with The Independent.

The European Union has demanded that Ms Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power over her role in a gas deal with Russia, be released ahead of a summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, at the end of November.

At the summit, Ukraine is expected to take a historic step towards the West by signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Supporters of Ms Tymoshenko, who is regarded as President Viktor Yanukovich’s main political rival, say the charges against her are politically motivated.

Ms Tymoshenko’s detention had been seen as an obstacle to the signing of the accord, which would allow freer trade between the EU and Ukraine, and is seen as a make-or-break opportunity for the former Soviet country to move out of the orbit of Russia, which remains Ukraine’s biggest trading partner.

“We are extremely close to resolving this matter,” Mr Azarov said when asked about Ms Tymoshenko’s case. “Neither the government nor the President has any intention of preventing the Association Agreement from being signed… I see no impediments [on this].”

The Association Agreement is seen as a first step on the ladder towards EU membership for Ukraine, but it comes with many conditions for Kiev, including significant reforms on democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tackling corruption, as well as the resolution of the Tymoshenko case, which is seen as a symbol of “selective justice” in Ukraine.

It has been suggested that Ms Tymoshenko, who is currently receiving treatment for back trouble in a prison hospital in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, could travel to Germany for medical attention if she receives a pardon from Mr Yanukovich.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who had a two-hour meeting with Mr Yanukovich, described the talks as “constructive and intensive” but “complicated from both a political and judicial point of view”.  

Ms Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, indicated publicly for the first time last week that she is ready to accept an offer to go to Germany for treatment, for the sake of a “successful” Vilnius summit.

“I believe that this step will ease the situation on the eve of the summit of the Eastern Partnership,” she said in a statement. For the sake of a successful Vilnius [summit] and successful Ukraine, for the sake of a historic and crucial, agreement with the EU, I am ready to accept this proposal.”

However, she also vowed that she would not give up the fight against what she termed Mr Yanukovich’s “dictatorship”. Mr Azarov said that he believed the European leaders had been convinced by court documents and the case history that Ms Tymoshenko had committed a “real crime” by agreeing to pay a severely inflated price for Russian gas, costing the country “hundreds of millions of dollars”.

He said the Ukrainian leadership had subsequently been asked to consider freeing her “guided by a humanitarian attitude” since she “is a woman, a politician, and she is sick”.

It is not clear why Ukraine would have been asked to consider her gender and profession in its deliberations. Mr Azarov did not elaborate.

The European Parliament appointed a commission headed by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Irish politician Pat Cox to report on the success of Ukraine’s reform process, and their mediation on Ms Tymoshenko’s possible release. European Parlia-ment President Martin Schulz has said the report will be presented on 15 October and he is “confident” that Tymoshenko’s case will be resolved.

Mr Azarov said that one of the “greatest successes” of the mission was that Europe no longer saw Ms Tymoshenko’s case as “black and white” with the Ukrainian leadership “black” and Ms Tymoshenko “white”.

Speaking on the first of a two-day trip to Kiev ahead of the summit, Mr Westerwelle acknowledged  that “millions of people in this country believe that Mrs Tymoshenko carried out a crime which was confirmed by a Ukrainian court.”

Ms Tymoshenko won widespread support for her role in Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” against a corrupt election in 2004, which overturned the proclaimed victory for Mr Yanukovich. Some analysts say Tymoshenko could still be Mr Yanukovich’s only credible rival for the presidential elections in 2015.

Mr Azarov said that a “concerted move” must now be made by Ms Tymoshenko on the matter of her release, and that this was now “being conducted”.

However, Natasha Lysova, a spokeswoman for Ms Tymoshenko, insisted that “the ball is still in Mr Yanukovich’s court” and that they were continuing to wait to hear his decision on whether or not she will be freed.