Ukraine's prospects of signing a potentially historic deal with the European Union were dealt a possibly fatal 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 toward EU membership -- at a summit in late November, but an extraordinary session of parliament ended without deputies even taking a vote on the issue.
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.
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.
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 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 Verkhova Rada, to witness the failure of the session.
The two EU statesmen immediately afterwards went into talks with parliamentary faction leaders, but their content was not clear.
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.
Next parliament meeting November 19
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.
Ukraine could sign the agreement at the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 28-29, but it must show it is able to do so ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers Monday.
Rybak said the next parliament session would be a regular meeting on November 19, a day after the EU foreign ministers' meeting.
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.
"Viktor Yanukovych has in the last weeks already been kicking the Association Agreement to death. The opening of a case against Sergiy Vlasenko has been done so cold-bloodedly and methodically as the last blow to Ukrainian hopes," Tymoshenko said in a statement read by her daughter Yevgenia.
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.
Almost no details have filtered out about the mysterious visit, with the Ukrainian foreign ministry saying only that the two sides discussed economic cooperation in the context of the Vilnius summit.
"Right from the start Yanukovych did not want to sign anything with the European Union," Tymoshenko's ally Yatsenyuk wrote bitterly on Twitter. "He played and outplayed even himself."
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.