In a surprise move, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pardoned two close allies of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on Sunday, April 7, including jailed former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko. But experts say the president is no closer to freeing the jailed Orange revolution firebrand - a move that would help clear the way to a trade deal with the EU.
"Yanukovych signed a decree pardoning six convicted people, including Lutsenko and Ukraine's former environment minister Georgy Filipchuk," the president's office said in a statement on Sunday, AFP reported. Yanukovych made no mention of Tymoshenko in his statement.
Yanukovych made the decision to pardon Lutsenko after repeated requests from leading EU figures and comes a week after Ukraine's Higher Specialized Court for Civil and Criminal Cases quashed an appeal and upheld the verdict against Lutsenko. Lutsenko was an interior minister under the Tymoshenko administration and former president Viktor Yushchenko. In December 2010, he was charged with abuse of office, the same charge that was used to jail Tymoshenko, by the Yanukovych team. In February 2012, he was sentenced to four years in jail for embezzlement and abuse of office in a decision widely seen as politically motivated. His case has become linked to that of Tymoshenko and the EU has been demanding his release along with hers as a pre-requisite to signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Brussels. Lutsenko's health has deteriorated while in prison, according to his family, as has Tymoshenko's. He is said to have contracted hepatitis and is suffering from pancreatitis and other illnesses. In January, he underwent an operation on his intestine.
The EU hailed the pardon for Lutsenko and Filipchuk, but indicated it expected more. It's "a first but important step to deal with selective justice," Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said on his Twitter account.
The pardons are certainly good signs, but while they might halt the deterioration in relations with the EU, the talks on the EU trade deal remain at an impasse. Nothing will happen in the talks until Tymoshenko is released - and that is very unlikely to happen.
The clock on the trade talks was ticking so Yanukovych probably had to do something. At a recent summit in Brussels, the EU set a May deadline to show some progress or else abandon its hopes for tighter relations with the EU. However, the EU only asked to see "progress" and not a resolution to the outstanding problems, so Yanukovych is probably hoping this gesture will placate the EU enough to stave off a firm rejection of the country's aspirations to move closer to the EU.
The pardon was announced ahead of a protest in Kyiv that saw 7,000 people take to the streets, according to Kyiv Post reporters at the scene. The police said only 2,000 protestors turned out. Ukraine's opposition leaders, including boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko and nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, turned out to call for Yanukovych's resignation.
Klitschko said: "We will fight to free Yulia Tymoshenko and others that are today behind bars... so that there are no more political prisoners in our country," reports the FT.
President Yanukovych is seen as having painted himself into a corner at a critical time for the country. Ukraine's hard currency reserves are dwindling and the economy is slowing. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week cut Ukraine's outlook to growth for this year to 1%, while the government insists it will be 3-4%. With several billion dollars worth of debt maturing, the country needs to raise at least $500,000 a month on domestic and international bond markets to function.
The pardons are thus probably more about tactics than part of a wider strategy. An IMF team is in Kyiv to restart a stalled $15bn stand-by agreement deal and some have taken this weekend's pardons as a sign that a deal with the IMF is close.
However, Yanukovych's form is to muddy the waters as much as possible as part of efforts to muddle through. Caught between Moscow and Brussels, Ukraine finds each have unpleasant strings attached to their help: Brussels is demanding Kyiv conclude a deal with the IMF first that includes hiking domestic gas tariffs; Moscow wants Ukraine to join the Customs Union, which would exclude it from a free trade deal with Europe.
The next stage in Tymoshenko's fight will come from the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which is due to hear her case in the coming months. If it rules that her arrest was politically motivated, this will only pile more pressure on Yanukovych.
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