European leaders have warned the President of Ukraine that if a Kiev court sends the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, to prison the country can forget about closer integration with the European Union.
The warning was given during a tense two-hour meeting between President Viktor Yanukovych and a delegation of EU politicians on the sidelines of a major policy forum in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta over the weekend. "I hope we brought to him very clearly the message that the rule of law is of critical importance," said the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, after the meeting. "Ukraine has a problem, and I hope that he understood that it needs to be resolved."
Mr Bildt said Ms Tymoshenko's the case was discussed at length, and Mr Yanukovych was told it was unlikely European parliaments would ratify an agreement on closer co-operation between Ukraine and the EU if the former leader were sent to prison. Stefan Fule, a top EU diplomat who also met Mr Yanukovych, said the relationship between Europe and Ukraine would "hardly be the same" if Ms Tymoshenko were convicted. "We've been given assurances that the President is very interested to find a solution," he said.
Ms Tymoshenko is accused of exceeding her authority as prime minister when she signed a contract on gas prices with Russia in 2009. She has been on trial in Kiev in a high-profile case that saw her bail revoked for repeated contempt of court. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison, and would be barred from standing in future elections.
The charismatic Ms Tymoshenko, with her trademark plaited hairstyle, draws most of her support from the pro-European west of Ukraine. She was one of the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, but the Orange coalition descended into squabbling and in-fighting, and Mr Yanukovych, whom the revolution had ousted, won the presidency last year.
Privately, many European diplomats admit the image of a flawless democrat that Ms Tymoshenko likes to portray may not be the full truth, but believe the trial is politically motivated, and insist that political scores should not be settled through the courts. "If you are in a hole, you should stop digging, and perhaps the events of the last few days show they've stopped digging," said Mr Bildt, referring to the judge's decision to take a two-week break before delivering the verdict in the case. "Now we hope they might start to climb out of the hole."
Sources close to the Ukrainian President suggested at the weekend that a Bill may be rushed through parliament that decriminalises Ms Tymoshenko's offence. Mr Yanukovych himself conceded that the legal system needed reform and that Ms Tymoshenko was being tried under a Soviet-era law. "We appreciate the advice we receive on this issue but the issue has lots of different sides and aspects to it," he said.
Yesterday, however, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament said the proposals would not be heard until next week at the earliest.
The Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, also dampened hopes of a climbdown in the case. He said it was "immoral" to link integration with the EU with the Tymoshenko case, and insisted the government did not have any control over the courts.
The trials of Tymoshenko
* February 2010 Ms Tymoshenko loses a bitter presidential election against rival Viktor Yanukovich.
* June 2011 Ms Tymoshenko is accused of abusing her powers during her term.
* August 2011 Ms Tymoshenko stands trial. for 'systematic violations' of court rules.
* September 2011 The EU threatens to scrap planned trade and political association agreements if Ms Tymoshenko is jailed.
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