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Ukraine EU deal in doubt as time runs down

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych attend a ceremony celebrating Navy Day in Sevastopol on July 28, 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych attend a ceremony celebrating Navy Day in Sevastopol on July 28, 2013

A planned deal between Ukraine and the EU hung in the balance Tuesday after President Viktor Yanukovych made a mysterious trip to Moscow and Kiev opened a probe against the lawyer of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, whose release is key to the European Union agreeing to sign the deal with Ukraine, accused Yanukovych of "kicking to death" the country's EU aspirations ahead of a crucial parliament meeting Wednesday.

Just weeks ago, the chances seemed high of Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius at the end of November and making a historic break with Russia.

But over the last days the deal has been plunged into uncertainty by confusion over Ukraine's readiness to release Tymoshenko in some form.

The latest twist was the announcement by prosecutors that they suspected Tymoshenko's lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko of beating his ex-wife Nataliya Okunskaya when they were still married in 2010.

Denouncing the allegation as "absurd", Tymoshenko said in a statement read by her daughter Yevgenia that Yanukovych had dealt a fatal blow to the hopes of signing the Association 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."

Vlasenko denounced the case against him as a "total lie which has nothing to do with reality" and accused the authorities of "not ceasing political repression" ahead of the crucial summit.

After a court hearing in Kiev, Vlasenko was allowed to go free on 22,940 hryvnia ($2,800/2,100 euros) bail. He must present himself to investigators twice a week and is not allowed to leave Kiev. However an exception will be made for visiting Tymoshenko who is hospitalised outside of prison in Kharkiv.

'Secret' meeting with Putin

Ukraine's parliament is expected Wednesday in an extraordinary session to debate changes to legislation that would allow Tymoshenko to have treatment in Germany and thus remove a key obstacle to signing the EU deal.

But weeks of talks between the Regions Party of Yanukovych and the pro-Tymoshenko opposition have produced no agreement on a bill and opposition leaders Tuesday accused the authorities of working to stymie the deal.

The opposition's suspicions about the president's intentions were amplified when it emerged Yanukovych had travelled to Moscow on Saturday for secret talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said such secret talks could serve as the basis for impeaching the president while the head of the opposition UDAR (Punch) party, world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, criticised the president for "saying one thing and doing another".

"You cannot allow that behind the scenes agreements and the personal phobias of Yanakovych mark the end of the European aspirations of Ukraine," Tymoshenko, who presents herself as a champion of EU integration, said in her statement.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry's spokesman Yevgen Perebiynis enigmatically confirmed that the talks had taken place, saying only they were about "bilateral economic relations in the context of the Vilnius summit".

In a bizarre sequence of events, the presidency announced Saturday that Yanukovych had left for the visit before giving no further information on the subject and the Kremlin only confirmed the talks on Monday.

European Parliament's two special envoys, Poland's former president Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament president Pat Cox, were expected in Kiev on Tuesday to give Ukraine a final chance to show it had made progress.

Kwasniewski and Cox are to deliver a final report to the European Parliament on the issue later this week. The document will then be discussed by EU foreign ministers on Monday.

The ministers will assess whether Kiev will be ready to sign the agreement at the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 28-29.

Signing the Association Agreement -- a free trade deal which is the first step towards EU membership -- has been held up by the 2011 jailing of Tymoshenko on contested abuse of power charges she says were ordered as political revenge by Yanukovych.

Representatives of Ukraine's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs as well the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine on Tuesday met Yanukovych and urged him to delay the signing of the agreement by a year to allow the country to better prepare, the presidency said in a statement.

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