MOSCOW, November 20 (RIA Novosti) – Ukraine’s prime minister said Wednesday that his country remained committed to clinching a landmark trade deal with the European Union, although the agreement could be derailed by intransigence over jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
Ukraine is expected to sign an association agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit, set to start in Vilnius on November 28.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters in the Russian city of St. Petersburg that preparations for the summit were proceeding normally.
“Our plans remain unchanged,” he said.
But Tymoshenko remains a major obstacle on Ukraine’s path toward greater integration with the EU.
The ex-premier, who is an avowed political rival to President Viktor Yanukovych, has been sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges that she says are politically motivated.
She is now seeking medical treatment for a debilitating back condition that requires hospitalization abroad.
EU officials have said that the signing of the association agreement will be called off if Tymoshenko is not allowed to leave the country for treatment.
Despite repeated efforts over recent weeks, Ukraine’s parliament has failed to pass a law allowing convicts to travel abroad for medical treatment.
The EU trade deal could threaten Ukraine’s economic ties with Russia and other former Soviet states.
Russia has pitched its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan to Kiev and warned Ukraine that it would lose existing trade privileges if the EU deal goes through.
Azarov admitted that his country had already registered significant losses because of shrinking trade with Russia and other members of the Moscow-led post-Soviet alliance, the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“Trade turnover grew significantly in 2012, but in 2013 we have lost nearly one-quarter of our trade turnover with CIS markets,” Azarov said. “Those economic losses are significant for us, and Ukraine has been facing serious [financial] hardships lately.
Azarov said that his government’s top priority for next year was to have Russian trade barriers removed and to bring the rapidly worsening state of trade with Russia back to normal.
“It’s no coincidence that when drafting the budget, the main economic figures for 2014 will depend on whether we are able to create mutual understanding with Russia,” he said.
The Ukrainian government said in a statement that Azarov met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the CIS prime ministers’ council in St. Petersburg on Wednesday evening.
During the closed-door meeting, Azarov and Medvedev discussed various CIS deals, including access to pipelines, free trade deals for the service sector and limited export duties.