KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday cancelled a regional summit rather than host a partly-boycotted meeting and face a lecture over his treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
The foreign ministry’s announcement that the talks had been called off was an embarrassing setback for Yanukovich and a triumph for Tymoshenko, who is on hunger strike in prison in the city of Kharkiv.
Tymoshenko refused to move as planned from prison to a local hospital on Tuesday. But, after speaking to a German doctor who will treat her for chronic back pain, she agreed to transfer there on Wednesday and gradually come off her hunger strike during treatment, her daughter Yevgenia told reporters.
The presidents of Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic had all said they were pulling out of the informal summit that had been planned for Thursday and Friday in Yalta. Twenty heads of state attended the annual talks when they were held in Poland last year.
The boycott followed allegations by Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, that she had been beaten by prison guards last month.
The authorities have denied any mistreatment of the charismatic Tymoshenko, who was a driving force in the 2004 Orange Revolution street protests which doomed Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency.
But the boycott threat, and the cancellation of the Yalta gathering, highlight Ukraine’s growing isolation as it prepares to host European soccer championships from June 8 to July 1.
“Due to the inability of some European state leaders to take part in the summit … Ukraine considers it sensible to delay it,” the ministry said in a statement. It said new dates for the gathering would be announced later.
With the Tymoshenko case likely to loom large in off-the-agenda conversation, Yanukovich may have anticipated unwelcome advice from some of those attending the annual regional gathering, which looks at eastern European countries’ progress towards European integration.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, whose country is co-hosting the Euro-2012 soccer tournament with Ukraine, had served notice he intended to raise Tymoshenko’s case.
“President Komorowski was planning to go to Yalta to appeal to President Yanukovich for changes in the Ukrainian laws that would make sentencing for political activity on the basis of criminal law impossible,” Komorowski’s spokeswoman Joanna Trzaska-Wieczorek said in Warsaw.
The European Union and the United States have denounced Tymoshenko’s trial and seven-year sentence for alleged abuse of power as politically motivated, urging Yanukovich to free her.
But, with some European leaders also threatening to stay away from the soccer tournament, he has refused to intervene in what he says is a decision by an independent court.
Instead, authorities have brought to court fresh tax evasion charges against her which carry a sentence of up to 12 years.
The decision to call off the Yalta meeting marked another public relations coup for Tymoshenko, Yanukovich’s nemesis, who has often managed to put him on the back foot by keeping an international focus on her plight from her prison bed.
Tymoshenko, 51, has been on hunger strike since April 20 in protest at her alleged ill-treatment in prison.
The authorities have refused to allow her to take up an offer from Germany to be treated in Berlin for chronic back trouble. Under a deal worked out involving German doctors, she had been tentatively expected to move to a Kharkiv hospital on Tuesday to be treated there.
END TO HUNGER STRIKE
Though she declined to do this she was persuaded by her German doctor to transfer from Kharkiv’s Kachanivska prison on Wednesday and begin treatment – a move which would involve her gradually coming off her hunger strike, her daughter said.
“I can say that we have reached an agreement that Mrs Tymoshenko tomorrow will be transferred to the hospital and we can start our therapy,” German doctor Lutz Harms told reporters.
“Dr Harms will take her off her hunger strike and this will take from 10-14 days,” Yevgenia told reporters.
Assuming she does move to hospital on Wednesday, this could again upstage Yanukovich since May 9 is Victory Day when he will lead the country in ceremonies marking the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
Yevgenia said her mother hoped her situation would be resolved before the start of the Euro championship.
“The situation has reached a critical breaking point now and we hope the games will take place in a sporting atmosphere and not an atmosphere of political crisis,” Yevgenia quoted her mother as saying.
One of Tymoshenko’s lawyers, Olexandr Plakhotnyuk, earlier told reporters her health had worsened because of the hunger strike. “Her blood pressure has dropped and I was there when they took her temperature. It was 35.7,” he said.
A crowd of her supporters gathered outside the prison. Some stuck stickers on the prison walls proclaiming their solidarity with her. One read “Ukraine will triumph!” and another declared: “Not guilty!”
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Sergiy Karazy; Editing by Andrew Roche)