Nov 12, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

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Ukraine: A Critical Decision Lies Ahead for Kiev

Ukraine: A Critical Decision Lies Ahead For Kiev

A ruling by the Ukrainian government this week will have important implications for the country's long-term strategic orientation between the European Union and Russia. Sergei Glazyev, Russian presidential adviser on regional economic integration said, Nov. 11 that Russia would engage in multibillion-dollar projects with Ukraine on the condition that the country does not sign an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. This comes days after European Union officials gave Nov. 13 as the deadline for the Ukrainian government to make a decision on the status of jailed opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.

With a key summit on Ukraine's integration with the EU approaching later this month, Brussels and Moscow have ramped up efforts to sway Ukraine into their respective blocs. Kiev has so far attempted to balance both sides without committing too firmly to either. The time for Ukraine to make a concrete decision is approaching, however, and recent developments show significant hesitation in regards to satisfying EU demands. 

There are only a few weeks remaining before the Nov. 27 EU Eastern Partnership summit, in which Ukraine is scheduled to sign association and free trade agreements with the bloc. Last-minute maneuvering between Russia and the European Union as each vies for Kiev's future has intensified. Ukraine, which has been negotiating the agreement over the past few years, has passed the majority of the legislation necessary to sign with the European Union. One of the few remaining concerns is the status of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Timoshenko, who was jailed following what was seen as a politically motivated trial — spearheaded by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich — in 2011.

Calling for the release of Timoshenko, several EU officials have explicitly stated that the signing of the EU agreement is directly linked to the fate of the former prime minister. The Ukrainian government has indicated that it is willing to consider her release for medical treatment in Germany but has stalled in reaching a final decision as a result of parliamentary motions to have the issue postponed. This lack of progress prompted the European Union to set Nov. 13 as the deadline for the Ukrainian parliament to reach a firm decision on Timoshenko's release into medical care. A special session was called by Ukraine's parliamentary speaker for Nov. 13 in order to vote on a bill allowing overseas medical treatment for prisoners in Ukrainian jails. The bill would enable Timoshenko to recieve treatment in Germany for a herniated disc. 

The parliamentary ruling will have significant implications not only for the outcome of the Eastern Partnership summit but also for Ukraine's broader foreign policy orientation. As hard as EU officials have been working to make sure the Timoshenko issue is cleared before the summit takes place, Russia has been trying equally hard to block any progress on Ukraine's EU integration. Russia has said that signing the EU agreements would preclude Kiev from building closer trade and economic ties with Moscow and has enacted temporary restrictions on Ukrainian goods to send a message of what could be in store if Ukraine follows through with its intentions. 

Ukraine: A Critical Decision Lies Ahead For Kiev

Russian-European Natural Gas Networks

These trade tensions lay within the context of a broader and more contentious issue between Ukraine and Russia: energy. A controversial natural gas agreement between Ukraine and Russia, signed in 2009, when Timoshenko was the prime minister, is the biggest source of disagreement between the two countries (and what landed Timoshenko in jail in the first place). Under Yanukovich, Ukraine has sought a revision of the agreement, which has allowed for lower natural gas prices over the past two years. However, Russia has refused to lower prices unless Ukraine cedes strategic energy assets or joins Moscow's customs union. Neither side has been willing to compromise, which has prompted Ukraine to try to diversify its energy sources away from Russia while Moscow has sought to circumvent Ukrainian state energy firm Naftogaz with its own influential actors in the country. 

The push to ratify the EU agreement is another byproduct of the bitter feud between Russia and Ukraine, but the Timoshenko issue continues to be the single biggest obstacle to signing. Given that Timoshenko also poses the largest political threat to Yanukovich, the government has sought to prevent her release on all possible grounds. Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov said Nov. 9 that the European Union's linking of Timoshenko's release to the signing of the EU agreement was "irresponsible." This, along with the Nov. 11 detention of a key lawyer for Timoshenko's case by Ukrainian authorities, indicates that the release of Timoshenko and the signing of the EU agreement are not foregone conclusions. 

These developments also demonstrate the difficult balance that Ukraine must maintain between its own domestic political concerns and its foreign policy goals. While Ukraine has managed this balance until now, the time to make a firm decision concerning its relationship with the European Union and Russia is fast approaching.

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