This week, for almost the first time since I arrived in Ukraine in June 2008, Ukraine has been the number one item on the BBC World News website and in other media around the world.  Friends have been getting in touch to ask me what’s going on, and where Ukraine is going.  It’s an important question.

The cause of this interest and concern is the sentencing of ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko on Tuesday to seven years in prison, a three-year political ban and a massive fine.  Discussion in the media has focused on whether the trial verdict means that Ukraine has given up on its ambitions to integrate with Europe and become a democratic EU-type country, or whether the outcome of the trial can somehow be overturned allowing Ukraine’s EU integration path to continue.  In the House of Commons on 12 October, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko, whom I have met on previous occasions, is absolutely disgraceful. The Foreign Secretary has made a very strong statement about this. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK but with the European Union and NATO."  

All this raises the question as to what exactly has to happen in order for the EU integration process – in the first instance, the signature and ratification of the Association Agreement which Ukraine has been negotiating with the EU for the last four years – to continue.  I discussed some of the issues in my recent blog "Tymoshenko in Yalta".  The answer is that the UK and EU want to see Ms Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders out of detention and able to participate in the political process, including the 2012 parliamentary elections.  Any outcome of the present trials which leaves a cloud threatening future political activities by opposition politicians, such as a big fine or continued legal uncertainty, is likely to lead to continued uncertainty about whether the Association Agreement will be signed and ratified.  

The good news is that a mechanism to resolve the issue, in the form of proposals to decriminalise the offences of which Ms Tymoshenko is accused, is ready and waiting in the Ukrainian parliament.  It could in theory be activated, and Ms Tymoshenko freed, as early as next week, before President Yanukovych is due to visit Brussels on 20 October.  The questions is whether Ukraine has the political will to make this happen.

Does Ukraine have that political will?  The key point is that this is up to Ukraine.  The EU is not trying to force Ukraine to do anything.  Nor is the EU desperate to sign the Association Agreement if Ukraine does not demonstrate by its actions that it, too, is keen.  In short, like any other country which wants to integrate with the EU, if Ukraine wants to move towards joining the European club and becoming an EU-type country, it has to behave in an EU-type way.

Final point: some commentators in Ukraine have suggested that maybe the Tymoshenko trial is a cunning way to persuade the EU to grant Ukraine a membership perspective (i.e. to say that, one day, Ukraine will definitely join).  Perhaps, they argue, if Ms Tymoshenko is got out of jail the EU will be so grateful that it will grant such a perspective.  I discussed this issue in a recent blog, "How to make Ukraine more European".  Frankly, it seems improbable to me that anyone is thinking in these kind of transactional terms but again, just for the avoidance of any doubt, the events of the past week cannot possibly have any positive impact on the likelihood of Ukraine getting a membership perspective.  If anything, unfortunately, the reverse is true.  If that is where this affair ends up, it will be a an immense shame, for Ukraine and for Europe. 

Leigh Turner

Ukrayinska Dumka


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