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Ukraine risks seeing EU deal put off for ‘very long time’

Ukraine risks seeing a historic free trade deal with the EU slip away for “a very long time” if it fails to make the moves needed for agreement at a summit next week, EU president Lithuania said Tuesday.

The blunt warning came as Ukraine’s parliament delayed for another two days a debate on a bill that would let jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko seek medical treatment abroad — a key condition to securing the Association Agreement, a first step to EU membership.

The pact represents a landmark break by Ukraine from Russia, its master both in the Tsarist and Soviet eras. Moscow is infuriated by the prospect of Kiev’s close integration with the EU.

With time running out and the November 28-29 summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius looming, anxiety over Ukraine’s prospects of sealing the pact is climbing.

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite told AFP in an interview that Kiev must act now to secure the deal.

“There are no guarantees that it could be signed after a year or two… The pause in relations may take a very long period of time,” she said.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition “share the responsibility” to find a compromise on a deal allowing Tymoshenko go abroad for treatment, or else the EU agreement will be scuppered, Grybauskaite said.

“If the law that solves the Tymoshenko issue is not adopted, EU member states will definitely not sign an agreement with Ukraine,” she said.

Tymoshenko, a fiery opposition leader who rose to fame during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and is an arch-rival of Yanukovych, was sentenced in 2011 to seven years in prison on abuse of power charges, prompting international criticism of the case as politically motivated.

She is being treated for longstanding back problems in a hospital outside her jail, and Germany has offered her medical care.

Freeing Tymoshenko in some form is a crucial condition set by EU leaders for Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement.

But, in a session attended by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, Ukraine’s parliament failed to even debate a bill which would allow Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment in Germany.

The issue could be debated on Thursday, when lawmakers are to examine four bills on treating convicts abroad.

But that could be the last chance for legislation on Tymoshenko’s case being passed — and the chances of parliament doing so remained unclear.

Yanukovych, crucially, has so far not publicly backed the moves to free Tymoshenko.

He is keen to see the charismatic Tymoshenko kept out of politics ahead of presidential polls in 2015 and has insisted that even if she goes abroad for treatment, her seven-year sentence should remain in place.

‘Brazen EU pressure’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her country’s parliament on Monday: “I have to say today that it is not yet certain whether Ukraine is willing to fulfil the criteria for a possible association agreement.”

The signing of the Association Agreement with the EU would be a painful blow to Putin’s hopes of reviving links between ex-Soviet states, in particular through a Customs Union which already involves Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia but not Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the EU of exerting “brazen pressure” on Ukraine to choose between Moscow and the West.

He complained to reporters that Ukraine was being told by EU officials “that ‘you have to choose between either going back to the past, or moving with us to the bright future’.”

Cash-strapped Ukraine, a major transit route of Russian gas to Europe, also risks new conflicts with Russian gas giant Gazprom.

Gazprom has twice interrupted shipments to Ukraine — once in January 2006 and then again in January 2009 — in moves that also threatened energy supplies to some central and western European countries at the height of winter heating seasons.