YALTA, Ukraine, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Senior European officials met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych Friday to work out an integration deal currently snagged on continued imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
There was little sign of a breakthrough after EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fule and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt issued a joint statement that warned Ukraine talks on a political and economic association deal could not progress while Tymoshenko remained in jail.
The outspoken politician is facing corruption and political malfeasance charges that European officials privately insist are trumped up.
EU officials want her released. An EU-Ukraine association agreement is up for discussion and signing at a summit Dec. 1.
The president's sensitivity to the subject surfaced during the meeting when he ignored a pointed question on the politician's fate, directed at him by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who moderated the meeting.
Tymoshenko has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and won backing in other European advocacy forums but Yanukovych remains unmoved, saying he cannot interfere in a judicial process.
His comments during the meeting skirted the Tymoshenko question and pledged Europe that all will be clear after Ukraine's parliamentary election on Oct. 28.
Critics expect the poll to be dominated by Yanukovych cronies but Ukraine's proximity to Russia as a former Soviet republic has softened European hearts and many in Brussels appear keen to bring Ukraine on board as the European Union's 28th member.
The European Union's soft line on Ukraine contrasts with continued dragging of feet over Turkey's association, openly opposed by many EU members who see the country less as a vital NATO eastern flank and more as a Muslim nation in a Christian bloc.
Tymoshenko's well-argued case that she is a victim of vendetta by Yanukovych is lost on many European politicians who want to hasten Ukraine's entry.
Tymoshenko spearheaded Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution and the mass protests annulled Yanukovych's fraud-tainted election victory, bringing her pro-West government to power. The revolutionary solidarity was short-lived, however, and slow reforms and divisions weakened her position.
Yanukovych returned to power in 2010 after narrowly defeating Tymoshenko, whose approval ratings suffered amid the post-revolutionary turmoil.
Last year Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of abuse of office while negotiating a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009. Further charges of wrongdoing followed.
Analysts said while many Europeans would like to push ahead with Ukraine's integration, Tymoshenko's imprisonment was an obstacle to both their ambitions and Yanukovych's aim of securing an EU deal to entrench his position.
In an article in English-language Kiev Post, Fule said EU association offered Ukraine huge opportunities -- new markets for its goods, investment and trade.
"The challenge ahead of us now is to take the agreement to the stage where we can sign it, and to get through the democratic steps needed to allow its entry into force," Fule said.
"This will depend on Ukraine's performance in three areas -- on the speed of overall reforms, on the conduct of the elections and on the issue of selective justice," a reference to the detention of Tymoshenko.
"We still have grave concerns shared by many of Ukraine's citizens, as well as international friends and partners," he said.
Fule visited Tymoshenko in Lukyanivka detention center in Kiev.