Ukraine's prospects of signing a historic deal with the European Union suffered a severe blow Wednesday when 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, thus permitting 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 two EU special envoys on Ukraine, Poland's former president Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament president Pat Cox, were present in parliament to witness the failure of the session.
Kwasniewski put on a brave face afterwards, saying there was still a last chance next week.
"We understand that politically this is all very difficult. But we hope that enough goodwill is found to come to a consensus," he told reporters at Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.
But he warned that November 19 was the "last moment to do everything that needs to be done."
'Russia number one issue'
Signing the Association Agreement has been held up by the 2011 sentencing of Tymoshenko to seven years in prison on contested abuse-of-power charges she says were ordered as political revenge by Yanukovych.
But Lithuania, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said it was not too late.
"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 that time was running out for Ukraine to address the Tymoshenko case.
"The time for delivery is short," the spokesman said.
Igor Zhdanov, head of the Open Politics analytical centre in Ukraine, commented: "The ball is now back in the court of the Regions Party" of Yanukovych.
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 Ukraine, and also a break from Kiev's former Soviet masters in Moscow.
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.
Amid growing pessimism over the chances of signing the EU deal, Ukraine's union of industrialists late Tuesday called on Yanukovych to delay the agreement by one year, saying it was damaging trade relations with Russia and Kazakhstan.
In televised remarks, Yanukovych told the industrialists that he shared their concerns about Ukraine's economic situation. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said normalising relations with Russia was "issue number one" for the Ukrainian economy.
Ukraine's EU integration hopes had already been dealt a blow by a sudden criminal probe against Tymoshenko's lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko on suspicion of beating his now ex-wife in 2010.
Vlasenko was released 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 also 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.