October 11, 2011 11:23 pm
Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, says he has made a strategic choice to integrate his country more closely with Europe, rather than succumb to the velvet promises of an iron-fisted Russia. Yet the conviction to seven years in prison of his bitter political foe, Yulia Tymoshenko, takes the country a big step further away from achieving this goal.
Since his election in early 2010 Mr Yanukovich has shown a greater affinity for Russian-style authoritarianism than western democratic values. He has rolled back gains of the Orange Revolution of 2004, which deprived him of power after a rigged election and made Ms Tymoshenko a popular, if flawed, hero. Old presidential powers have been restored and enhanced, while the influence of parliament and the prime minister has been weakened. The media, once vocal in its criticism of government, has been muffled and opposition politicians have been singled out by prosecutors in a barely independent justice system.
The conviction of Ms Tymoshenko, on the questionable charge of exceeding her authority as prime minister in negotiating a gas contract with Moscow, is merely the latest in a string of disturbing developments.
The European Commission, about to conclude negotiations on a wide-ranging free trade agreement with Ukraine, cannot ignore such selective justice. Yet neither can it ignore the strategic importance of bringing this pivotal buffer between Europe and Russia firmly into the western fold. This consideration rightly outweighs the fate of any one politician. The conviction should be condemned, but it should not jeopardise the conclusion of trade negotiations. Withdrawing the promise of access to the single market, and possibly even visa-free travel, could have the undesired effect of pushing Ukraine into Russia’s orbit.
Setting out the principles of a free trade agreement will not ease the pressure on Mr Yanukovich. On the contrary, EU member states should use an eventual ratification process to demand concrete proof from the president that his country adheres to European values.
As a first step, the government must reverse recent backsliding on democratic and media freedoms. The political opposition must also be able to present credible candidates at next year’s parliamentary elections. That could mean allowing Ms Tymoshenko to run. This is the bare minimum for winning the trust of Europe’s member states – and ensuring that he keeps the trust of his own people.
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