Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych hit back at the European Union over jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on Friday, saying he would not pursue integration with the EU at the price of allowing it to interfere in her case.
The seven-year prison term meted out to TYmoshenko has been
condemned as political persecution by Western leaders and
stopped important Ukrainian agreements with the EU on political
association and a free-trade zone dead in their tracks.
Yanukovych made his remarks in a speech marking Independence
Day that also drew several thousand opposition supporters onto
the streets of the capital in protest at his government’s
economic policies and Tymoshenko’s imprisonment.
Yanukovych, midway through a five-year term in power in the
former Soviet republic, said in a keynote address to government
and church officials that his leadership was committed to
joining the European mainstream.
He went on: “But integration at any price in exchange for
losing independence or for making economic or territorial
concessions or in exchange for allowing interference in our
internal affairs – this is a path which we have never accepted
and will never accept.”
The Tymoshenko affair will be a major issue in an Oct. 28
parliamentary election when Yanukovych’s majority Party of the
Regions faces a strong challenge from the united opposition.
The EU and the United States regard Tymoshenko, firebrand
leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution street protests and a
former prime minister, as the victim of selective justice and
say her trial was politically motivated.
But Yanukovych, whose first bid for power was overturned by
the Orange Revolution but who later went on to beat Tymoshenko
in a bitter run-off for the presidency in 2010, has refused to
secure her release and allow her to return to political life.
Tymoshenko was convicted last October of abuse of office in
connection with a gas deal which she brokered with Russia in
2009 when she was prime minister. The Yanukovych government says
it saddled Ukraine with exorbitant prices for strategic gas
imports which are now impairing the economy.
TYMOSHENKO FACES SECOND TRIAL
She is appealing against her conviction, but a second trial
has been opened against her for alleged embezzlement and tax
Yanukovych, resorting to a tactic used by Ukrainian
negotiators before, hinted that Ukraine might opt for tighter
economic association with Russia if its path to integration with
Europe proved too difficult.
“We must multilaterally develop cooperation with our CIS
partners. After all that is where there is the biggest market
for Ukrainian producers. We should not ignore the integration
processes which are going on there,” he said.
Despite frequently dropping the hint that it will turn to
Russia if spurned by the EU, Ukraine has for several years
rejected membership of a Russian-led customs union of ex-Soviet
republics as an economic blueprint for the future.
Several thousand opposition protesters marched in Kiev on
Friday to show their solidarity with TYmoshenko and to criticise
government reforms, which have imposed higher taxes on small
business and forced people to push back the age of retirement.
In an audio-recording from jail that was played at Friday’s
opposition rally, Tymoshenko appealed for uncompromising
struggle against what she called “absolute evil” in the country.
“Do not leave our young country to the kleptocrats, the
occupiers and dictators. Do not adapt yourself to their level of
immorality. Do not betray yourselves or the country,” she said.