Minutes after the sentencing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison, the EU issued strong statements, calling the court decision 'politically motivated' and warning of negative consequences for Kyiv's push to sign an association agreement with the Union.
The court sentenced Tymoshenko today (11 October) to seven years in prison for abuse of office in the negotiation of a gas deal with Russia in 2009, when she was prime minister.
According to the verdict, Tymoshenko will not be able to run in a parliamentary election due next year.
"I'm certain that the European court will cancel this unjust ruling," Tymoshenko said after the judge announced the verdict.
"Today the Constitution and justice in Ukraine are being trampled and no one can rely on these courts. This is a very difficult and important moment. Be together! Be strong! Glory to Ukraine!" Yulia Tymoshenko said as she left the courtroom, the Ukrainian information agency Unian reported.
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister and one of the architects of the Eastern Partnership initiative, aimed at deepening relations with Ukraine and other countries at the Union's eastern periphery, said in a tweet during an EU ministerial meeting that the court decision would "endanger the entire relationship" between Kyiv and Brussels.
Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, stated that the Union was "deeply disappointed" by the verdict, which did not respect international standards as regards fair legal process, adding that the Union "would reflect" on its policies toward Ukraine.
"This unfortunately confirms that justice is being applied selectively in politically motivated prosecutions of the leaders of the opposition and members of the former government. It is especially disappointing for a country that currently holds the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe," Ashton stated.
Indeed, Ukraine is chairing the body's Committee of Foreign Ministers from 11 May to 7 November 2011. The organisation's activity is largely centred on human rights.
When asked by EurActiv whether this meant Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych's 20 October visit to Brussels would be cancelled, a senior EU diplomat said such measures if taken would be decided by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
Political groups react
Wilfried Martens, president of the centre-right European People's Party, went further than Ashton, calling for the suspension of negotiations of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which are expected to be concluded and signed in December.
"The promise of Yanukovych to European leaders to release political prisoners in order for them to stand for the elections, has yet to be fulfilled, which makes EU cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities extremely problematic," Martens said.
However, not all political groups reacted as promptly as the EPP. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European parliament did not hurry to publish a statement.
On previous occasions, the S&D have taken a more relaxed stance vis-à-vis what was seen by other groups as democratic backsliding under Yanukovich.
Ukrainian officials remain optimistic
Speaking to journalists, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Konstiantyn Gryshchenko downplayed the effect of European pressure on his country. "I think that it's being taken seriously by many actors in Ukraine but it's not simply that someone tells us what to do and we immediately take salute," he said.
The Head of Mission of Ukraine to the European Union Kostiantyn Yelisieiev emphasised the international importance of the Association Agreement.
"At this stage to put the Tymoshenko case ahead of the strategic importance of the document is a great mistake … This time the EU should make a choice as to what is most important for them," he said
Yeliseiev remained optimistic on the outcome of negotiations. "The conclusion of the agreement with Ukraine will be a clear-cut signal that the EU still trusts in the European project … and in my view we are very close to a deal," he said.
Former ally criticises Tymoshenko
Some of Tymoshenko's detractors, including her then-ally during the 2004 Orange Revolution, the former President Viktor Yushchenko, consider that she has indeed acted against her county's interests by signing a highly unfavourable gas contract with Russia in 2009.
"Why has Germany got a base price of $250 per [1,000 cubic meters of gas], Slovakia and Austria have from $250 to $300, and Ukraine has $450," asked Yuschenko, as quoted by Interfax Ukraine.
The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzeksaid in a written statement:
"I deeply regret the Ukrainian court's decision to sentence former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to 7 years in prison. The context and conditions of this verdict raise concerns about its politically motivated nature and about a selective application of the rule of law in Ukraine. I have serious doubts about fairness, independence and transparency of this trial. The law applied against Tymoshenko dates back to the Soviet times and envisages criminal prosecution for political decisions.
… Strengthening the rule of law and a credible fight against corruption are essential not only for the conclusion of the Association Agreement by the end of the year and the deepening of EU-Ukraine relations, but also for the consolidation of democracy in Ukraine. I urge Ukraine to uphold the principles and common values that define our relationship and that form the core of the Eastern partnership."
Joseph Daul, Chairman of the centre-right EPP Group, condemned Tymoshenko's sentence.
"It is unacceptable that Timoshenko's defence was denied its various pleas without any explanation. In addition, the conditions in which the trial took place are deplorable, including the difficulties the EU envoy had faced when asking to enter the courtroom.
"As Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, I would like to reiterate that this case is politically motivated and did not meet even minimal European standards.
"This outrageous verdict has irreparably demolished our trust in the Ukrainian authorities and points to massive abuses of power by the Ukrainian leadership.
"Today's verdict can only cloud further future cooperation and contact with the current leadership of Ukraine," Daul concluded.
Greens/EFA co-president Rebecca Harms and Green MEP Werner Schulzsaid:
"This politically-motivated ruling is a backwards step for the rule of law in the Ukraine and a blow to EU-Ukraine rapprochement. Nobody should be under any illusions that this court case was designed to scupper the prospects of the political opposition in the Ukraine ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.
Even if the ruling is subsequently overturned, this episode has damaged the credibility of the Ukrainian government. "While the Greens are in favour of concluding an EU-Ukraine association agreement, guaranteeing the rule of law and making democratic progress is a precondition for this. Today's ruling is clearly a blow to this end."
Denis MacShane, a Labour Party member of the British parliament and former minister for Europe in Tony Blair's government, wrote in the Kyiv Post that it is hard to see how any agreement with the EU can be signed as long as Kyiv rejects a core value of European democracy - namely that elections, not courts, are where politicians settle their differences.
"Now EU enlargement has run out of steam. While the economic crisis grips Europe, euro zone and non-euro economies alike, it is hard to see much that can encourage Ukrainian modernisers and European-style democrats to show commitment and energy. Ukraine does not need to shoot itself in the foot with this Kafkaesque trial. It is at the ballot box that revenge can be taken upon politicians, not in the courtroom once they have left office," McShane wrote.
The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine said in the statement "Ukraine is interested in the success of the United Europe and is ready to undertake corresponding obligations given that the EU assumes proportionate obligations towards Ukraine. We also underscore that there can be no internal process or event that can undermine this reciprocity since we speak of the strategic perspective of the Ukraine-EU relations."
"The Yulia Tymoshenko case is no exception and should not have any negative impact on the conclusion of the Association Agreement, the process Mrs Tymoshenko has publicly supported recently on numerous occasions," it added.
The Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy 'People First' said in a statement "The ex-president Viktor Yuschenko who has supported the sentence of the court, distanced himself from the signing of gas contracts with Russia which are the reason why Yulia Tymoshenko has been jailed.
It asks "Why didn't he as an acting president for a whole year after their signing apply legal actions to suppress them? Why didn't the then-leader of the opposition Viktor Yanukovych who took the oath of allegiance to Ukraine as a public official and MP legally act earlier?"
"Tymoshenko's guilty verdict ... has definitively confirmed that there is no justice in Ukraine. ... In case of a fair trial not only Tymoshenko should have been a participant of the process, but also Yuschenko and at least all members of the then parliament who didn't prevent this agreement," the Foundation said.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán were quoted by the AFP saying at a 14 October meeting in Prague that Tymoshenko's imprisonment hurts Ukraine's EU accession prospects.
Tusk said that human rights protection is the most important European standard and that Ukraine failed to meet that standard due to Tymoshenko's imprisonment. Nečas said the latter was evidence of a dysfunctional legal system, which makes ratification of any EU association treaty with Ukraine unlikely.
· 20 Oct.: Planned visit of President Viktor Yanukovich to Brussels.
· 14-16 Dec.: EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv.