EU and US officials have condemned Ukraine's government and accused it of politically motivated attack on opposition figures after a court decided to strip the lawyer for jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko of his parliamentary seat on March 6.
European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule sent Kyiv a stinging rebuke after the court decision was announced. "Stripping a parliamentarian of his mandate like in the case of Vlasenko is not the European way. Does this bring Ukraine closer to the EU?" Fule asked rhetorically on Twitter.
As an MP, Vlasenko is barred from working and says he was only advising Tymoshenko in the interests of human rights, which is well within his parliamentary brief.
The Vlasenko affair is only the latest faux pas on Kyiv's part as its relations with Brussels become increasingly strained. The EU has explicitly linked the passage of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Ukraine to the release of Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence on abuse of office charges and facing another murder investigation that could see her jailed for life.
"A pretty incredible move from the Ukrainian authorities, and it would seem to run at odds with the stated intention of pushing ahead with the FTA," says Tim Ash, head of strategy at Standard Bank. "The EU has made it crystal clear in recent weeks and months - including presumably during Yanukovych's visit to Brussels last week - that the application of selective justice had to be ended as the price of getting agreement on a FTA by the May deadline set by the EU. At face value the Ukrainian government would seem to be burning its bridges with the EU and the West and undermining its negotiating position with Moscow in the process."
Tensions are rising as the EU is clearly running out of patience. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was in Brussels on February 25 where he was told to end political oppression by May or face an end of his aspirations closer EU cooperation.
Despite the obvious consequences to the ongoing negotiations with the EU, Ukraine's Highest Administrative Court in Kyiv pushed ahead with the decision to strip Vlasenko of his seat on the grounds of his working while serving as an MP.
The ruling is especially galling as the Rada is chock full of businessmen such as Rinat Akhmetov, by far Ukraine's richest man according to the latest Forbes rich list released this week, who certainly continues to be involved in his business. Indeed, many of the oligarchs currently serving in the Rada sought a seat in parliament precisely because it is good for business. The irony of Vlasenko's case is he is probably one of the few deputies serving in the Rada who is there because he wants to do something for the country and his fellow citizens.
And this irony is not lost on either the EU or the US; the State Department condemned the decision in a statement, saying that an attempt to strip Vlasenko of his seat in parliament appears to be politically motivated due to his connection with Tymoshenko.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a dour response to the condemnation. "We have taken note of the statement of the U.S. Department of State, as well as a relevant statement of the EU High Representative [for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton] and European Commissioner for Enlargement [and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule] regarding some aspects of the developments in Ukraine," Acting Director of the Foreign Ministry's Information Policy Department Yevhen Perebyinis told a Wednesday press briefing.
Perebyinis went on to offer the standard rebuttal - that Ukraine's legal processes are a domestic issue and dictated by the law - and tried to separate out the case from the EU bid. "We think this situation should be considered exclusively at the level of legislation and Ukraine is committed to the commitments it undertook during the EU-Ukraine Summit," he said.
However, no one believes that the decision to attack Vlasenko is not politically motivated. A western diplomat told the Financial Times that the ruling is another "shocking" step taken by Kyiv that will further "aggravate relations with Brussels and runs against any logic or the interests of Ukraine in terms of its chances of signing an association and free trade agreement with the EU this autumn."
Standard Bank's Ash speculates that the decision is actually an indication of a political wrangle inside the ruling elite over Ukraine's future direction and the Vlasenko case is deliberately designed to sabotage the Ukraine's FTA deal with the EU. "The question is who is driving such actions in the Yanukovych administration," Ash says in a note. "I think this highlights that the Yanukovych administration is increasingly split/divided, likely between a pro-Russian lobby around the energy sector, and a more pragmatic wing, which favours a move back Westward for Ukraine. Neither side is able to get the upper hand at present, but a battle seems to be being fought behind the scenes. Several commentators have suggested to me that there is now an orchestrated campaign underway from with the administration to sabotage any chance of a deal with the EU and the IMF."