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Kyiv's test of EU patience

A difficult guest is expected in Brussels on Monday. While Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is pushing for a landmark deal with the EU, he continues to ignore demands for more democracy in his country.

Viktor Yanukovych had to wait more than two years for this visit. The previous round of negotiations between the Ukrainian president and EU leaders, held October 2011, had failed at the last minute following the imprisonment of Ukranian opposition leader Julia Tymoshenko and a number of her cabinet members. Almost a year and a half later, Yanukovych is expected to attend the EU-Ukraine summit February 25 in Brussels.

The Ukranian government in Kyiv has insisted that the existing association agreement with the European Union be signed swiftly. The deal, which includes the creation of a free trade zone, is set to make Ukraine commit to European standards.

However, Yanukovych's increasingly authoritarian leadership style appears to be jeopardizing the deal. In December 2012, the European Council set out a number of conditions for signing the agreement. It demanded the implementation of key reforms, aimed at strengthening press freedoms and the independence of the justice system. The EU is also calling for better conditions to hold free and fair elections.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko during her hearing at the Kiev Pecherskyi District Court in Kiev, Ukraine, 29 June 2011. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was found guilty of public malfeasance by the Kiev court on 11 October 2011. Tymoshenko has been charged of having illegally signed a natural gas import agreement with Russia while in office from 2007 to 2010. (Photo: dpa)

The case of jailed former prime minister Julia Tymoshenko has strained relations between Ukraine and the EU

Skepticism in Berlin

In spite of all this, Ukraine does not seem to have used the time leading up to the summit effectively, said Susan Stewart, expert on European affairs at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "I do not see any signs that Ukraine is willing to take these demands seriously," Stewart told DW.

Stewart believes there has even been a negative turn of events in the Tymoshenko case, following the announcement that the former prime minister could be put on trial and face life imprisonment if sentenced for alleged complicity in the murder of a parliament member in 1996. The EU criticized the lawsuit as being politically motivated.

Viola von Cramon, spokeswoman for the Green Party in the German parliament, said the EU cannot sign the association agreement under the current conditions. "As a landlord you would not thank the tenant who ruins your apartment, and then cover the renovation costs yourself," the politician said to DW.

The signing of this agreement would send the wrong signal to Eastern European countries within the EU, she said, adding: "Why should countries like Georgia or Moldova make an effort, if they can just simply sign an association agreement?"

Warnings to Kyiv

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov during a press conference after meeting with Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in Riga, Latvia, 10 February 2012. (Photo: dpa)

Prime Minister Azarov wants to focus mainly on matters of "strategic importance" with the EU

Viktor Yanukovych doesn't have much time left. If the deal is not signed at the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Lithuania on November 28-29 of this year, the issue will very likely be taken off the agenda, said Stefan Füle, EU Commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy, during his visit to Kyiv earlier this month.

There are also warnings from German politicians. Franz Thönnes, representative of the Social Democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German parliament, says that a window of opportunity has been opened to the government in Kyiv, and that it should take this chance seriously.

But the parliamentarian also believes that EU-Ukraine ties should not be limited to the association agreement. He points out that Ukrainian interests in matters such as energy and visa restrictions should also play and important role at the summit. Precisely these things are long-term goals of Ukraine: achieving a visa exemption with the EU, and modernizing the strategically important gas pipe network with EU help.

East/West split

In an interview with the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Ukranian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov referred to the imprisonment of opposition leaders as a subject of "secondary importance" that must not overshadow "strategic issues." According to him, the association agreement does not only bear importance for Ukraine, but also for the EU. The premier declined to reply to criticism from the EU.

Gunther Krichbaum, head of the EU Committee in the German parliament, said he is disappointed at Azarov's stance. "Some in Ukraine believe that Europe will overlook the massive violations of constitutional principles after a short period of indignation, simply because Ukraine is of strategic importance. But this will not be the case," the parliamentarian for the Christian Democratic Union told DW. Europe expert Stewart also has doubts that Kyiv's geopolitical gamble to get the EU to sign the deal in order to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to Russia will work.

Since president Yanukovych took power three years ago, Ukraine's foreign policy has been swaying between the East and West. There seems to be no clear majority among the Ukrainian people on whether to sign the association agreement with the EU or join a Russia-led trade bloc. According to the latest DW poll, Ukrainians are split down the middle on both options.