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Europe on Monday issued Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych a May deadline to convince his EU partners that "selective justice" of the sort meted out to ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko is a thing of the past.
At a summit meeting to pave the way for the ex-Soviet state to seal a partnership deal with the West at a November gathering of European Union and ex-Communist neighbours in Lithuania, the terms for a wide-ranging free-trade deal were made clear.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy told a press conference after roughly three hours of talks in Brussels that the European bloc needs to see "determined action and tangible progress" on selective justice, fully democratic elections and other reforms "at the latest by May this year."
He said: "Some steps have been taken but we still need to see more and concrete progress."
Broadly speaking, a "systemic reform of the judicial system is crucial to ensure there is no recurrence of selective justice."
Van Rompuy said the timetable was "realistic and feasible," even if "very short," and stressed that the EU "hopes to sign and ratify" a so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine, "acknowledging its European aspiration and its European choice."
The pact would focus notably on energy security, with Ukraine a key player in the transmission of Russian gas that the EU relies on to keep its 500 million people warm and to help power some 20 million businesses.
However, Van Rompuy warned that signing the accord "implies a commitment to shared values," a commitment on Kiev's part that some states -- said to include EU powerhouse Germany -- still doubt.
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, also taking part in the summit, highlighted the fact that Ukraine was "not walking alone" towards this goal.
The prospective pact was described by Van Rompuy beforehand as "defining," after months of sometimes bitter exchanges over human rights, in particular the jailing of opposition leader and ex-premier Tymoshenko and several of her former ministers.
Kiev's prosecution and incarceration of the 2004 Orange Revolution icon on abuse of power charges has caused a major deterioration in ties with the West, with Yanukovych accused of abusing the courts to sideline his chief political foe.
Yanukovych says European integration remains a priority for Ukraine but has complained that Kiev "has received no support, even no sympathy" from the EU amid gas rows with Russia in recent years.
After the talks, Yanukovych said he had emphasised Ukraine's "openness" and maintained "another important step" had been taken at the summit, with special attention devoted to opening up visa access to the EU for Ukrainian citizens.
The Association Agreement was initialled in March last year but in December, the 27-state EU set out conditions for signing the accord, including judicial reforms.
Last week, Ukraine's ambassador to the EU Kostiantyn Yelisieiev said his country did not want to sign up to a putative ‘customs union’ trading bloc with Russia and one-time Soviet allies but instead "we want to go to the West."
The issue of Ukraine's stand is often cast as a straight choice between the West and Russia, with local politics driven by sharply different views on where its best interests lie.