By the Blouin News Politics staff

Despite Russian threats, E.U. accelerates push for Ukraine deal

by in Europe.

Riot police block opposition supporters carrying a flag with the portrait of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from entering the city hall during a rally in Kiev October 23, 2013.

Riot police block protesters carrying a flag of Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev, October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

One month before Ukraine is scheduled to sign landmark pacts at a November 28 E.U. summit, the E.U. is intensifying its push for the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The release of Tymoshenko, jailed in 2011 after what Brussels calls a politically motivated trial, is the linchpin of an association agreement that would set Kiev on the path to European accession.

But while Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is in favor of joining the European Union — as are a majority of his constituents — he has shied away from E.U. demands for a presidential pardon for his jailed rival, testing Brussels’ resolve in the process. His gamble seems to be working. Though E.U. officials had insisted on Tymoshenko’s full release in previous weeks, European envoys in Kiev are now eying a compromise, which would send Tymoshenko to Germany for medical treatment — and presumably back to prison afterwards.

The backtracking speaks to the bloc’s desire to accelerate a process ten years in the making. Especially since E.U. ministers will meet in less than three weeks to determine if Ukraine has met the necessary criteria to sign trade and association agreements. Such urgency is tied to Russia’s own efforts to consolidate its influence in the region. (Moscow hopes to counter the E.U.’s reach through a Eurasian customs union.) But here, Brussels has enmeshed itself in a sublime catch-22: if the E.U. pushes too hard on Tymoshenko’s release and Kiev backs out of the Vilnius summit, the cash-strapped nation might feel compelled to crawl back to Moscow; if the E.U. folds on the issue, and allows Yanukovych to continue to administer his brand of selective justice, it risks compromising the bloc’s core values (like, say, rule of law).

The stalemate also attests to a critical weakness in the bloc’s enlargement policy, which at times seems like all carrot, no stick — namely, fading leverage. The E.U. dangled financial incentives to the flailing economies of Eastern Europe during its 2004 and 2007 enlargements, but countries like Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were all quick to backslide on promised reforms after joining the bloc — to little formal censure. That message of European weakness looks to have colored negotiations with Kiev. If Brussels compromises on Tymoshenko, Yanukovych will have even less motivation to follow through on other concessions.

True, the lengthy accession process means Ukraine’s integration is a far-off prospect. (Just look at Turkey, which has been trying to join the bloc since 1959.) But its troubled bid already has Europe in a conundrum, opposing critical members like Sweden and the Netherlands against leading proponent Poland. Worse still, Ukraine may yet embroil the E.U. in a feud with Russia.

In recent months, as E.U.-Ukraine talks intensified, Russian officials have threatened to implement tough border checks and trade restrictions in retaliation. The Kremlin maintains that an E.U. association agreement would violate a Russia-Ukraine friendship and partnership treaty. Moscow’s latest move threatens to have more concrete ramifications: on Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Russia will withhold gas delivery to Ukraine until it pays its $882 million energy bill.

The maneuver is familiar — Moscow shut off the gas to Kiev in 2006 and 2009, causing shortages in European countries dependent on Ukraine’s pipelines. Now, as winter approaches, Europe could find itself reeling from the repercussions of Ukraine’s E.U. bid — and subsequent gas war — well before accession gets off the ground.