Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich has hinted that legal reforms could provide a way out of the contentious trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Orange Revolution co-leader, threatening the country’s hopes of closer integration with Europe.
Addressing a conference in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, Mr Yanukovich on Friday attempted to distance himself from a case that has provoked stern criticism from Washington and European capitals. He insisted the original probe of Ms Tymoshenko’s 2009 signing of a Russian gas contract was initiated not by him but by his presidential predecessor – and Ms Tymoshenko’s estranged Orange ally – Viktor Yushchenko.
But in a meeting with Stefan Füle, European Union enlargement commissioner, Elmar Brok, a senior European parliamentarian, and Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt, Mr Yanukovich was said to have indicated a willingness to resolve the Tymoshenko issue.
Western officials have stepped up pressure on Kiev in recent weeks to refrain from using what they see as selective justice to sideline political opponents. They have warned that a jail term for Ms Tymoshenko could derail Ukraine’s attempts to conclude a far-reaching co-operation and trade deal with the EU.
Mr Füle and Mr Brok said Mr Yanukovich had suggested Ukraine might decriminalise some articles of its outdated criminal code as part of legal reforms being discussed by parliament. These could include the article under which Ms Tymoshenko has been charged.
His reported comments are likely to raise hopes that Ms Tymoshenko may escape a jail term among both her supporters and EU officials who have championed a deal with Kiev as a way of locking it onto a European path.
Speculation has mounted in Kiev all week that the Yanukovich administration might seek a face-saving exit from the Tymoshenko case. The judge on Monday unexpectedly suspended the two-month-old trial for two weeks.
“The criminal code dates back to 1962 and…we think it is a nonsense to live by a document that regrettably Ukrainian politicians didn’t manage to review,” Mr Yanukovich told Friday’s Yalta European Strategy conference.
Mr Füle said Mr Yanukovich indicated privately he was “very much aware” of EU concerns over the trial and “expressed a willingness to find a solution”.
“He shared with us…that there is an on-going process, reflecting that in Ukrainian legislation there are still reflections of Soviet legislation, to decriminalise certain aspects of the criminal code,” he said.
These included article 365, relating to exceeding political authority, Mr Füle added. Ms Tymoshenko is charged with exceeding her powers as prime minister when she signed the 2009 gas agreement with Russia that prosecutors say damaged Ukraine’s economy.
Diplomats have warned, however, that Kiev’s real willingness to implement such a compromise – which would be deeply unpopular with Mr Yanukovich’s own supporters – remains unclear. So, too, does exactly how decriminalising article 365 might affect the trial and Ms Tymoshenko’s ability to return to politics.
“Clearly this trial is being conducted under laws that would have no place in any other European country and have no place in a Ukraine that is aspiring to move in a European direction either,” said Mr Bildt.