- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Ukrainian civic activist says Ukraine’s president must release a jailed former prime minister and adopt judicial and electoral reforms to meet benchmarks for closer relations with the European Union.

Sergii Bondarchuk, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week that his working group of the National Roundtable Agreement for the European Future wants to help President Viktor Yanukovych to be in a position to sign an association agreement and free-trade pact with the EU in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in November.

The government of Ukraine is eager to sign these agreements.

While most European governments believe Ukraine has not done enough to meet EU benchmarks, some are reluctant to block the agreements out of concern that could push Ukraine into closer ties with Russia.

Mr. Bondarchuk accused Mr. Yanukovych of “blackmailing” the EU as well as Russia.

“Ukrainian authorities do understand that Ukraine is needed by both Russia and the EU,” he said through an interpreter.

The National Roundtable, a civic society group, has drawn up a list of 11 issues that it says must be resolved by the Ukrainian government to enable integration with the EU. Prominent among these is the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and an end to the practice of “selective justice” that targets Mr. Yanukovych’s political rivals.

“It is closely connected with Yulia Tymoshenko’s destiny,” Mr. Bondarchuk, who has been in regular contact with the jailed former prime minister, said of the National Roundtable.

Mrs. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison term for abusing her powers as prime minister in striking energy import deals that prosecutors said favored Russia and left Ukraine with crippling bills.

Mr. Bondarchuk described the natural gas issue as “Ukraine’s curse” and the main source of corruption in the country.

He said Russia and Gazprom, its gas company, have done everything to control the gas.

“From one side, the words of brotherhood from Russia’s side are spoken constantly; from another side, the price of gas in our territory is among the highest in Europe,” he said. “During the last three years, the extra charge for Russian gas for Ukraine was $17 billion.”

Western governments and human rights groups have described the charges against Mrs. Tymoshenko as politically motivated.

“Pretty much everybody who followed the trial in December of 2011, at least everybody in the West, regards it as a judicial farce,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now with the Brookings Institution.

In April, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Mrs. Tymoshenko’s pretrial detention was unlawful.

Human Rights Watch says Ukraine has a mixed human rights record.

“The case against [Mrs. Tymoshenko] and other highly politicized cases give grounds for concern that the government uses politically motivated charges to deal with its political rivals,” said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Yanukovych has also come under pressure from the opposition to release Mrs. Tymoshenko to undergo treatment in Germany for chronic back pain.

Mr. Bondarchuk was active in the pro-democracy Orange Revolution of November of 2004. Mrs. Tymoshenko was one of its leaders.

During the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian opposition leaders were “solid people,” but now, “opposition politicians are new computers, but old software,” he said.

Mr. Bondarchuk said that neither he nor Mrs. Tymoshenko favor another “revolutionary path” in Ukraine, but “there is a risk of revolution, which could put the whole country into chaos.”

He accused Mr. Yanukovych of heading a “super presidential republic” in which the president is “the only real decision maker.”

Tatiana Shalkivska, a spokesman for the Ukraine Embassy in Washington, declined to comment on Mr. Bondarchuk’s accusations, but some analysts have also noticed a drift toward authoritarianism in Ukraine.

“If you look at what has happened in Ukraine since 2010, when Mr. Yanukovych became president, you have seen a trend toward a more authoritarian government,” said Mr. Pifer.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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