Tim Gosling in Prague -
On May 8, Ukraine postponed a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders after the majority pulled out in protest against the treatment of former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Kyiv's failure to pitch its case to the European states on the country's western border is yet another high profile blow to the already struggling already struggling administration of President Viktor Yanukovych.
"In connection with the fact that a number of European leaders are unable to take part in the Yalta summit, Ukraine has decided to postpone it to a later date," foreign ministry spokesman Olexander Dikusarov said, according to Interfax-Ukraine. No new date for the summit, originally scheduled for May 11-12, has yet been announced.
At least 10 EU leaders officially announced they would not attend, making the prospect of continuing with the meeting even more embarrassing for President Yanukovych than its postponement. The former communist states in CEE have enthusiastically joined the belated EU action over Tymoshenko, with the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia all refusing to attend.
Poland - a normally enthusiastic europhile - did not join the boycott, however, and is also campaigning heavily against states taking similar action during this summer's Euro 2012 football championships, which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland. Warsaw is clearly worried that its moment in the global spotlight will be harmed by association, and has urged EU leaders to engage with Kyiv instead of blackballing it.
To that end, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said he had intended to raise Tymoshenko's case at the summit. "President Komorowski was planning to go to Yalta to appeal to President Yanukovych for changes in the Ukrainian laws that would make sentencing for political activity on the basis of criminal law impossible," Komorowski's spokeswoman Joanna Trzaska-Wieczorek said, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite insisted that she will embark on her visit to Ukraine anyway. A senior advisor to Grybauskaite told Ukrainian News: "Nothing has changed. The president intends to visit Ukraine." The Lithuanian leader plans to see Tymoshenko in prison in Kharkiv before meeting Yanukovych in Yalta. The advisor stressed that an independent meeting of five CEE leaders - the presidents of Poland, Moldova, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Ukraine - has not been called off.
However, the failure of Kyiv to convince CEE of its story - that Tymoshenko is guilty of wrongdoing rather than a victim of political oppression - and avoid postponement of the main event is another hit for Yanukovych, as pressure on his government mounts from all sides.
Whilst the protracted argument over gas prices with Russia, and associated postponement of a $20bn International Monetary Fund loan programme, continues to drag on the economy and the state's fiscal position, the country's hosting of Euro 2012 is rapidly turning into another PR nightmare. Boycotts from senior EU officials have been compounded by the series of unexplained bombs that went off in early May.
The pressure is now mounting, with Tymoshenko on hunger strike and claiming to have been beaten. She faces new charges of embezzlement - stemming from her time in the gas industry before she launched her political career - on top of the abuse of office charges on which she was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Whilst her trial and conviction in October - which prevents her challenging Yanukovych for public office - raised some concern in Brussels, the objections remained muted for the most part. Now, however, the spotlight from Euro 2012 presents a unique opportunity for the former PM to push her case. Her current hunger strike and accusations against her guards of physical abuse have helped boost the attention.
Tymoshenko is a shrewd operator and has proved particularly strong at painting a picture of herself as a persecuted liberal for the West, whilst framing Yanukovych as a Moscow stooge, neither of which are completely accurate. However, the message is now being received particularly enthusiastically in CEE. Both Tymoshenko's former government colleague Bohdan Danylyshynin and her husband Oleksander have been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic for instance.
Analysts also note that Ukrainian business interests in the Czech Republic have also been growing in recent years. For instance, the recent contested takeover of the strategic foundry CKD Kutna Gora by Stakhaniv Rail, controlled by Konstantin Zhevago, one of the few Ukrainian oligarchs to be an open associate of Tymoshenko.
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