Ukraine postpones debate on EU bill as time runs down

19th November 2013, Comments 0 comments

Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday postponed for another two days a debate on a bill to let jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko go abroad for treatment, as the clock ran down to a crucial summit where Kiev hopes to sign a historic EU deal.

With the ruling party and opposition in the Verkhovna Rada struggling to find a compromise on the bill, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the EU of exerting "brazen" pressure on Ukraine to choose between Moscow and the West.

In a session personally attended by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, the Verkhovna Rada failed to even debate the bill that would allow Tymoshenko have medical treatment in Germany.

But speaker Volodymyr Rybak announced that parliament would on Thursday debate four different bills put forward by factions on treating convicts abroad, in what could be a last chance for Ukraine to agree the legislation in time.

Freeing Tymoshenko in some form is a crucial condition set by EU leaders for Ukraine signing an Association Agreement -- a first step to membership -- at a summit in Vilnius on November 28-29.

Signing the Association Agreement would mark a historic break by Ukraine from Russia, its master both in the Tsarist and Soviet eras, which has been infuriated by the prospect of close integration by Kiev with the EU.

It remains unclear if there is a chance of parliament passing the legislation but pro-Tymoshenko opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was no excuse for the ruling Regions Party of President Viktor Yanukovych to vote against on Thursday.

"Get over your fear and on Thursday vote for these bills," he said saying that the opposition was ready to vote for a text that suited the Regions Party.

Tymoshenko, the fiery opposition leader who rose to fame during the 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 long-standing back problems in a hospital outside her jail and Germany has offered her medical care.

'Brazen EU pressure'

EU leaders have made clear that it is still in the balance whether Ukraine can sign the agreement, with its fate in the hands of Yanukovych who has so far not publicly backed the moves to free Tymoshenko.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag 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."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also warned on Monday that "time is running out" after talks with his 27 EU counterparts. He said Ukraine should "act now."

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.

In the latest sign of Russia's ire, Lavrov accused the European Union of putting excessive pressure on states to chooses between Moscow and the West.

"You see fairly brazen pressure being put on states," Lavrov told reporters, complaining 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'."

Yanukovych 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 for abuse of power should remain in place.

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 supply to some central and western European countries at the height of winter heating seasons.

© 2013 AFP

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