March 6, 2013 6:54 pm

Kiev court’s ‘shocking’ ruling riles EU

A Kiev court has annulled the parliamentary mandate of a lawyer representing jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, stoking tensions with Brussels and jeopardising chances that both sides will sign free trade agreements this autumn.

Ignoring warnings from EU officials who voiced concern over the matter this week, a Kiev court on Wednesday stripped Serhiy Vlasenko of his parliamentary seat on grounds that he violated his mandate by simultaneously acting as a lawyer.

Ukraine’s constitution prohibits MPs from holding other formal positions in business or government, but the practice has gone largely unpunished, with influential businessmen sitting in parliament while holding the position of honorary president or board chairman.

A lawyer by profession and opposition MP, Mr Vlasenko denied acting as a formal lawyer for Ms Tymoshenko or profiting from activities on her behalf. He claims to have merely represented her on the basis of civic activism, as other parliamentarians have done in the past.

The ruling’s legality and motivation are being questioned, not least because it stands to aggravate tension with Brussels at a crucial time for bilateral relations.

A source in western diplomatic circles described the ruling as another “shocking” step taken by Kiev that will further “aggravate relations with Brussels and runs against any logic or the interests of Ukraine in terms of its chances of signing an association and free trade agreement with the EU this autumn”.

Stefan Fuele, EU enlargement commissioner, said on Twitter: “Stripping a parliamentarian of his mandate like in the case of Vlasenko is not the European way. Does this bring Ukraine closer to the EU?”

The ruling on Mr Vlasenko comes 10 days after EU leaders set a May deadline for Ukraine to show progress in ending politically motivated prosecutions and reverse a retreat on democracy. The message was delivered on February 25 at a Brussels summit to Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president accused at home and abroad of sidelining Ms Tymoshenko and other rivals through politically motivated trials.

After narrowly losing the 2010 presidential elections, Ms Tymoshenko was in 2011 imprisoned for seven years for exceeding authority in brokering a natural gas price agreement with Russia as premier in 2009. She faces additional charges including tax evasion and financing a contract killing.

Ms Tymoshenko denies wrongdoing, accusing Mr Yanukovich of waging a witch hunt against her. He insists Ukraine’s courts and prosecutors are independent.

Mr Yanukovich has recently hinted that he could pardon former interior minister Yury Lutsenko, another jailed opposition politician, but has given not clear indication of his willingness to release Ms Tymoshenko.

Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Mr Yanukovich was playing a “risky game of brinkmanship” with both the EU, keen to lure Kiev west with promises of free trade, and Russia tugging it eastward into a customs union of former Soviet republics, offering lower gas prices in return.

“He is trying to bargain tough, playing off both the west and Russia, but it’s not working out,” Mr Fesenko said.

The western diplomatic source said the EU leadership was keen to “continue dialogue if it sees progress” on the democracy front, “but Kiev’s leadership is increasingly making this difficult”.

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