Ukraine's prospects of signing a historic deal with the European Union suffered a severe blow Wednesday after parliament failed to agree a bill that would allow the release of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
The release of the opposition leader is a key condition set by EU leaders for Ukraine signing an Association Agreement — a first step towards EU membership. But an extraordinary session of parliament ended without deputies even taking a vote on the issue.
Ukraine may have a final chance to agree the bill when parliament convenes again on November 19, but this is one day after a meeting of top EU diplomats that was meant to decide if Ukraine can sign the deal at a November 28-29 summit in Vilnius.
Speaker Volodymyr Rybak declared the parliamentary session closed after a working group of the ruling Regions Party and opposition failed to agree a joint text for the bill.
Rybak's announcement was followed by cries of "Shame!" from the staunchly pro-EU opposition, who accused President Viktor Yanukovych of never wanting to sign the agreement in the first place.
The bill would have allowed convicts to leave Ukraine for treatment abroad and thus permit Tymoshenko, who suffers from back pain, to go to a clinic in Germany.
"The authorities do not want to sign the Association Agreement," said the leader of the opposition UDAR (Punch) party, world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
The European Parliament's two special envoys on Ukraine, Poland's former president Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament president Pat Cox, were present in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to witness the failure of the session.
However Kwasniewski put on a brave face afterwards, saying that the two envoys understood that it had not been possible to agree and hoped that a final decision could be taken on November 19.
But he warned that November 19 was the "last moment to do everything that needs to be done."
'Time for delivery is short'
Lithuania, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said Yanukovych could still salvage the deal. "I believe President Yanukovych can still save the EU deal if he assumes leadership and responsibility," Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.
In Brussels, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said the bloc was still committed to signing the deal but time was running out for Ukraine to fulfil its obligations.
"The time for delivery is short. There must now also be a decisive move to address the issue" of Tymoshenko, the spokesman said
The Association Agreement is a free-trade deal and marks a first step on the road to EU membership. If signed, it would signal a historic integration with Europe for the country of more than 40 million people, and also a break from Kiev's former Soviet masters in Moscow.
Amid growing pessimism over the chances of signing the EU deal, Ukraine's union of industrialists late Tuesday called on Yanukovych to delay the signing of the agreement by one year, saying it was damaging trade relations with Russia and Kazakhstan.
In televised remarks, Yanukovych told the industrialists that he took their concerns seriously. "I will attentively read your letters and suggestions. I share your concern about the situation in the country," he said.
The prospect of Ukraine signing the agreement had infuriated Moscow, which wants Kiev to join its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and has raised the prospect of retaliation on the already battered Ukrainian economy.
Ukraine's EU integration hopes had already been dealt a blow by a sudden criminal probe opened against Tymoshenko's lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko on suspicion of beating his now ex-wife in 2010.
Vlasenko was allowed to go free on bail but Tymoshenko's supporters decried the probe as brazen political repression at the crunch moment for the EU agreement.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has already called for an investigation into whether Yanukovych committed state treason by travelling to Russia at the weekend for apparently secret talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Right from the start Yanukovych did not want to sign anything with the European Union," Yatsenyuk wrote bitterly on Twitter.
Signing the Association Agreement has been held up by the 2011 jailing of Tymoshenko for seven years on contested abuse-of-power charges she says were ordered as political revenge by Yanukovych.