YALTA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine’s president said on Friday he was trying to resolve a standoff over jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, whom European leaders want freed before a landmark summit, but that no decision had been made.
President Viktor Yanukovich, speaking at a gathering of European leaders and officials in Crimea, said his ex-Soviet republic remained on course to sign key agreements with the European Union at a November summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“Ukraine’s move towards European standards is the central pivot of our policy of European integration,” he told the international conference in Yalta.
But he stalled over what the future held for Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and his most formidable political rival, who was jailed for abuse of office in 2011 after a trial which the EU has said smacked of selective justice.
Answering questions from her political allies during a panel discussion, Yanukovich said: “We are trying, and are seeking even today, to find a way of approaching this very difficult question relating to Tymoshenko.”
European envoys have been pressing him to pardon her so she can go to Germany to get treatment for back trouble which has kept her confined in hospital under prison guard.
But he said: “At the moment, we have not yet said either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (to her being released)”, adding there was still time to work out a compromise.
Asked if he would sign a pardon, Yanukovich appeared to suggest Tymoshenko would first have to acknowledge her guilt.
“Nobody has a bigger interest in solving this issue than I. But there are obstacles. An answer has to be given to ... the courts. Only the court can give an answer or (there can be) a voluntary decision by Tymoshenko. The answer lies in finding a compromise with the participation of Tymoshenko,” he said.
The agreements on political association and free trade which Ukraine, to the dismay of its former Soviet master Russia, is hoping to sign with the European Union at Vilnius will require the backing and subsequent ratification of all 28 member states.
Some in the EU say no progress can be made in Vilnius unless concrete steps are taken to release Tymoshenko.
Others are working on a compromise that may allow progress in Vilnius as long as Ukraine makes specific commitments on her case. It remains far from clear that any compromise will be acceptable to all EU countries.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, appeared adamant that Tymoshenko had to be freed.
“The request from the European Union on Tymoshenko’s case is still on the table and, without a solution, I do not see a possibility for the signature,” she told journalists.
Tymoshenko is Yanukovich’s fiercest opponent who ran him close for the presidency in February 2010. She was later jailed after a trial which she said was part of a vendetta carried out on Yanukovich’s orders.
If released and allowed to become politically active again, Tymoshenko, a fiery populist, could endanger Yanukovich’s prospects of re-election to a second term in 2015.
Yanukovich has come under strong pressure from Moscow to give up its drive towards integration with mainstream Europe and instead join a Russian-led customs union with promises of cheaper gas and softer duties on goods.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday again warned Kiev that Russia would retaliate with protectionist measures to guard its markets against highly competitive EU goods if Ukraine signed the agreements in Vilnius.
Yanukovich said Ukraine did not want to set East against West. “We want to bring them together in order to create a single economic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” he added.
Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens