BRUSSELS The European Union urged Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Monday to intervene personally to end a stand-off over jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko that is threatening to derail an EU-Ukraine trade deal.
With less than two weeks to go before the trade agreement is due to be signed at a summit in Lithuanian capital Vilnius, EU foreign ministers made clear Ukraine had not yet done enough to meet conditions the bloc has laid down.
The fundamental sticking point is over former prime minister Tymoshenko, a fierce opponent of Yanukovich who was jailed in 2011 for seven years for abuse of office. Western governments have described the trial as politically motivated.
EU governments see Tymoshenko's case as symbolic of "selective justice" in Ukraine and want her to be allowed to travel to Germany to be treated for a chronic back ailment. There had also been a push by some EU governments for her to receive a pardon, but Yanukovich is resisting that.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he wanted Ukraine to look towards Europe and benefit from closer trade ties with the EU, but it also had to meet basic requirements.
"I urgently recommend Ukraine to act ... and not play for time. Time is running out," he told reporters in Brussels.
The foreign ministers had been expected to decide on Monday whether Ukraine had met the EU conditions for signing the agreement. But they put off their decision to allow time for a session of the Ukraine parliament this week they hope will pass a law that could permit Tymoshenko to go to Germany.
EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele will travel to Ukraine on Tuesday and two EU envoys, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Irish politician Pat Cox, will also be in Kiev to try to broker a compromise on Tymoshenko.
Russia has used trade sanctions and the threat of disruption to energy supplies to dissuade Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other former Soviet republics from moving closer to the EU. Russia has urged them to join a rival Russian-led customs union instead.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Germany's Bundestag lower house of parliament, held out the prospects of financial incentives if Ukraine meets EU demands.
"I will push in Vilnius for the EU to counteract this pressure with concrete opportunities and real solidarity," Merkel said, referring to Russian pressure.
"This could be done by offering additional sales possibilities for products of our partner that cannot be exported to Russia, or through help in broadening its supplies of energy," she said.
The EU is trying to help Ukraine reduce its dependence on Russian gas by finding ways to supply it with gas via other routes, such as diverting gas to Ukraine via Slovakia.
Eustream, the Slovak gas distributor, said on Monday it was working with Ukrainian partners on an agreement to transmit gas to Ukraine but declined to provide details.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country holds the EU presidency, said that for the agreement to be signed Ukraine must enact reforms on elections and the public prosecutor's office and resolve the Tymoshenko question.
"If this is not done, it will not be possible to sign the agreement," she told reporters in Vilnius.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Yanukovich had the power to make or break the agreement.
"We all know that President Yanukovich has it in his power to find a solution," Spindelegger said, adding that he would try to persuade Yanukovich to reach a compromise when he meets him in Vienna on Thursday.
Yanukovich has signaled he would let Tymoshenko go to Germany, but only if she went there as a convicted person, falling short of the pardon some EU governments would like to see. His biggest fear is that she is pardoned and returns to Ukraine to challenge him in elections in 2015.
(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier and Martin Santa in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Richard Balmforth in Kiev; editing by Ralph Boulton)