Leading article: A backward step for Ukraine

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The Independent Online

With a circle of blonde plaits framing her head like a halo, Julia Tymoshenko still looks the popular heroine who led the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. But her jailing this week, allegedly at the behest of the man who ousted her as Prime Minister, throws into relief disturbing developments in a country which remains a pivotal buffer between Europe and Russia.

Ms Tymoshenko is undoubtedly a flawed idol. But although her reforming credentials are compromised by her having presided over political squabbling which paralysed Ukraine and left it unable to respond effectively to the global economic crisis, the man who has succeeded her is worse. Viktor Yanukovych is taking Ukraine in absolutely the wrong direction: rolling back democratic freedoms, re-centralising power, reducing the influence of parliament, and manipulating the judicial system to prosecute his rivals (including Ms Tymoshenko). That his style is closer to Russian autocracy than Western democracy, for all the pro-Europe rhetoric, is a matter of considerable concern.

The EU has reacted angrily to Ms Tymo-shenko's seven-year prison sentence for a deal, signed while she was Prime Minister, to buy Russian gas at too high a price. There is now talk that negotiations over a major free trade deal between Europe and Ukraine, which could be a precursor to EU membership, may even be broken off. That would be a mistake. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, may have reacted with hostility to the jailing of the woman with whom he signed the gas deal. But he is also urging Ukraine to join a customs union he has established with former Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan. For Moscow, the scheme is the kernel of a new Eurasian Union, which eventually might even have a single currency.

Against such a background, it is no time to begin nudging Ukraine eastwards. EU negotiations must continue, using the treaty ratification process as a mechanism to push for greater democratic freedoms. One such would be allowing the opposition to run credible candidates at next year's parliamentary elections. And Ms Tymoshenko should be one of them.