Ukraine balances between East, West at Yalta forum

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Leaders gathered at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum last weekend conveyed the message that Ukraine was at a turning point and had to make strategic choices between becoming anchored to the European Union or Russia’s economic and political sphere.

The 9th edition of the YES forum in Ukraine was marked by a ping-pong of contrasting views over imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as the geostrategic course the country should pursue.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, trying to play down the impact of the Tymoshenko case, argued that parliamentary elections would show Ukraine's commitment to democracy. The Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU, which have been put on ice for several months (see background), would be signed soon after the 28 October parliamentary election, Yanukovych said.

"We are actively moving towards signing the association agreement with the European Union," Yanukovych told the gathering on 14 September. "At the moment, our European partners have some additional questions to Ukraine, but I am sure that after the upcoming parliamentary elections all concerns will disappear and the path towards full association between Ukraine and the European Union will be completed," Yanukovych said, as quoted by the Moscow Times.

But Kairat Kelimbetov, vice prime minister of Kazakhstan, pleaded in favour of the integration of Ukraine in the customs union established by Russia with his country and Belarus. The EU has said that Ukraine’s eventual participation in the customs union was incompatible with the DCFTA.

“I don’t think Ukraine is a priority for the European Union. But it is a priority for the customs union,” Kelimbetov said, adding that the project would bring benefits for Ukrainian industry and trade.

The EU’s message was delivered by European Commission President José Manual Barroso, who addressed the 14-15 September conference through a video link.

“The European Union remains firmly committed to embracing Ukraine,” he said, adding that’s why the Commission has proposed political association and economic integration, by offering Ukraine an ambitious DCFTA agreement.

Barroso made reference to the obstacles to signing this agreement in the current circumstances, including polarised politics, and then hit with what seemed to be the main message for the moment: conduct a free and fair election, allowing media access for all candidates.

A different type of relationship?        

On behalf of the Ukrainian authorities, First Deputy Prime Minister Valerii Khoroshkovskyi said that instead of full membership, Ukraine could have a different type of relationship with the Russia-Kazakhstan-Belarus customs union, the website Ukrainian News reported.

Khoroshkovskyi said there was a need to coordinate the positions of Ukraine with the customs bloc, adding that Ukraine's proposals on cooperation in a so-called "3 +1" format were aimed at avoiding conflicts.

Ukrainian news media reported that Russia considers unacceptable Kyiv’s proposal on cooperation between it and the Customs Union in the "3 +1" format.

The Tymoshenko case was the other hot topic in the debates. Many opposition leaders were present at the forum and made their case.

The Kyiv Post reported that representatives of the government argued the case was legitimate and was a testimony that law is finally being enforced in the country, while the opposition insisted that the presumption of innocence and many other international norms were violated in this case.

Rinat Kuzmin, deputy prosecutor general responsible for the Tymoshenko case, repeated statements he had made earlier about indicting Tymoshenko in new cases, including murder. He also said that a team of Ukrainian prosecutors needed to go to the United States to question “key witnesses” in this case, particularly former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, a former mentor to Tymoshenko, who is now serving a federal prison sentence in California for money laundering.

In an emotional speech, Tymoshenko's close ally and former Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyria told the audience why he considers the case political: “Many officials, including the president, announced that Tymsohenko was guilty before the trial even ended. That's why I consider the case political,” Nemyria said.

Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko and key Party of Regions speaker Inna Bohoslovska defended the authorities’ handling of the case, in which the ex-prime minister was accused of abusing her authority in relation to a 2009 Russian gas supply deal that authorities now say obliged the country to pay exorbitant prices for gas.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt countered by saying that an act of signing a similar agreement would not come “anywhere in the vicinity of criminal prosecution” in Sweden, nor in other European nations.

The December 2011 EU-Ukraine Summit failed to initial the country's Association Agreement with the Union, largely due to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that Brussels sees as politically motivated.

The five-year long negotiations over the Association Agreement were concluded, but EU leaders made it clear that the deal would not be signed until improvements are made to the "quality of democracy and rule of law" in Ukraine.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also made it clear that the country's association agreement, which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), would not be signed until the parliamentary elections in Ukraine due in October 2012.

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