BRUSSELS -- The EU has ratcheted up pressure on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reverse what appears to be an intensifying crackdown against independent media and opposition ahead of local elections on October 31.
Commissioner Stefan Fuele -- standing in for the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton -- delivered an unusually blunt warning in a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on October 20.
Fuele said the EU is "concerned" about the recent deterioration of the state of fundamental freedoms in Ukraine -- saying these are values which bind together the EU together and "cannot be compromised."
"The pace and depth of our rapprochement with Ukraine will be determined by full respect of these values," Fuele said.
The EU commissioner pointedly noted that Ukraine has enjoyed the reputation of a country with a "high level of political freedom," with "a dynamic civil society and media," and a good rights record.
EU officials are expected to deliver the same message at an October 26 meeting with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, on the margins of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg. An EU-Ukraine summit will follow in Brussels on November 22.
The EU and Ukraine are currently negotiating a next-generation association agreement. Under Yanukovych, Ukraine has taken a piecemeal approach to an accompanying free-trade accord but remains keen to secure visa-free travel for its citizens in the EU. EU officials say Kyiv could receive at the Brussels summit a "road map" committing the bloc to that goal in principle -- but without setting any deadlines.
Fuele balanced his implied criticism of Yanukovych's administration with praise on the economic front. He singled out the adoption of a new public procurement law, gas sector reforms, and a standby-loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
Fuele's address was followed by a clash of European Parliament foreign policy heavyweights -- unusual in this context, as in recent years there has been a significant degree of unity among the main political groups with respect to the EU's Neighborhood Policy.
Speaking first for the largest faction, the European People's Party (EPP), Michael Gahler, a German Christian Democrat, tore into Kyiv's record, citing "credible reports" of the a clampdown conducted by the country's secret services against media and civil society activists, as well as attempts to silence the opposition ahead of local elections.
"Such developments must not be crowded out by positive news regarding the economy," Gahler said. "The pursuit of economic prosperity through authoritarian rule is a Chinese -- not European -- [approach]."
Adrian Severin, a Romanian socialist speaking on behalf of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, delivered a sharp riposte to Gahler, stressing the importance of maintaining "political stability" in Ukraine.
"A new government was elected through free and fair elections recognized by all of us," Severin said. "I believe that today is the right time to leave this government [alone] to deliver -- and not to prejudge from the first minutes of its mandate its achievements or non-achievements."
The two groups have tabled competing draft resolutions for a vote scheduled for today.
The EPP's draft is sharply critical of Yanukovych's record so far, expressing "concern at the increasing number of allegations, and credible reports, that democratic freedoms and rights, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of the media, have come under threat in recent months."
The socialists "welcome efforts to reestablish political stability" and express the hope that balanced constitutional reforms will follow. Commenting on the current political situation, their draft says the group "expects that -- although some initial difficulties had occurred -- the Ukrainian authorities together with all political forces in the country will ensure the free and fair conduct of the local elections on October 31, 2010."