Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych hopes to sign an association agreement with the European Union at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in November. Doing so almost certainly will require that he make some move regarding imprisoned opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko. Will Yanukovych finally take the necessary step?
EU and Ukrainian negotiators concluded the association agreement, which includes a deep and comprehensive free trade arrangement, at the end of 2011. But democratic regression in Ukraine over the past two years has raised concern among EU member states, and the European Union has to date refrained from signing the agreement.
In February, EU leaders agreed with Yanukovych to set the November summit as the target for signing, but they made clear that the Ukrainian government must first make progress on several issues, including putting an end to selective prosecution. Many translate that as a requirement for a move on Tymoshenko, whose jailing has been regularly criticized in European capitals as well as in Washington.
The European Union originally called for demonstrable progress by May. Almost everyone, however, sees the real EU decision coming later, in September or October. That extends the timeline for action by Ukraine.
Conversations during a June 5-8 visit to Kyiv produced a sense that Yanukovych may be contemplating action, perhaps permitting Tymoshenko to travel to Germany for medical treatment. People seemed more optimistic on this than during a visit in mid-April. Then, many held that Yanukovych would not budge. Moreover, Ukrainian officials expressed a belief that they could secure EU agreement to sign the association agreement without addressing Tymoshenko’s case.
EU member states are not of one mind on Tymoshenko, which may have given Yanukovych hope that he need do nothing. But most EU states—including heavy-weights Germany and France—reportedly insist on some action.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was clear in April, when she said that “if the Yuliya Tymoshenko case is not settled, the association agreement cannot be signed.” Sweden, which earlier joined with Poland in reaching out to engage Ukraine, also wants Kyiv to demonstrate its commitment to European values. And a senior Central European diplomat, whose government favors signing the agreement, recently observed that Yanukovych needs to make some gesture on Tymoshenko to bring other EU members to agree to sign.
Yanukovych’s prosecutor general is pursuing new charges against Tymoshenko. That is unlikely to help Kyiv’s case with the European Union. At the same time, Yanukovych continues publicly to stress the European vector of his foreign policy and attach great importance to the association agreement.
In his state of the union message the first week of June—delivered in written form rather than as a speech to the parliament—the Ukrainian president stated that “concluding the agreement on association for Ukraine … will shift our state’s cooperation with the EU onto a qualitatively new level of political association and economic integration.” He has continued to eschew membership in Moscow’s favored alternative—a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—though Ukraine has agreed to observer status.
Advisors close to Yanukovych reportedly have told him that signature of the association agreement would position him to run for reelection in 2015 as the man who brought Ukraine into—or, at the least, very close to—the European Union. They think that would boost his struggling electoral prospects. That has to intrigue Yanukovych, whose popularity has plummeted as the economy has stagnated and the government underperformed.
So is Yanukovych prepared to do something on Tymoshenko that would unblock the path to signing the association agreement? Perhaps, though before becoming too hopeful, we should remember that this could be a movie that we have seen before.
Following Tymoshenko’s arrest and trial in August 2011, and the ensuing storm of criticism from Europe and the United States, Ukrainian parliamentary deputies proposed that the legal code be amended. They suggested dropping the abuse of power article that had provided the basis for her trial. That seemed like an elegant way out of the mess.
At a September 2011 conference in Yalta, Yanukovych himself alluded to the possibility of amending the outdated code. In a lengthy conversation with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele on the margins of the conference, Yanukovych left the two believing that he would support such parliamentary action. Optimism grew that Kyiv might find a way to release Tymoshenko.
But Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which controlled a majority of seats in the parliament, did nothing to remove the relevant article. Tymoshenko was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Yanukovych faces a decision point in the next months. EU diplomats have said that, if the association agreement is not signed in November, it will move to the EU backburner until the second half of 2015. Letting Tymoshenko languish in prison thus could well cause Yanukovych to miss the opportunity to sign the agreement and claim the mantle of the person who brought Ukraine into Europe. How badly Yanukovych wants his European vector should become clear this fall.