The breakup of the Soviet Union has transformed relations between the former communist countries of eastern europe and the european Union, encouraging economic and political assistance, as well as potential membership. Since then, several of the more developed eastern european states were integrated into the European Union in 2004, while the remaining non-member states were included under the European Neighborhood Policy, which offered financial assistance under conditions of democratic reform.

Of the non-member states in the European Neighborhood Policy, potential integration is most relevant for countries that, like Ukraine, share a land border with EU members. Indeed, the relationship between Ukraine and the european Union has already been characterized by economic and political assistance, suggesting the possibility of future membership for Ukraine.

Ukraine, however, may not be ready. The nation has a history of division between the western region, which is more tied to Europe, and the southern and eastern regions, which connect strongly with Russia. the political tension between them emerged with unusual clarity during the arrest of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko earlier in 2012. on June 24, 2011, Tymoshenko was accused of signing a deal to buy natural gas from Russia that worked against the country’s interests. Prosecutors argued the gas prices were inflated, and pushed for a prison term of the maximum seven years. Tymoshenko called the charges absurd, and claimed the arrest was a politically motivated attempt to eliminate the primary opposition of current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Indeed, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have a long history of political clashes, symbolic of the tension between the eastern and western political influences in Ukraine. tymoshenko was one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution in 2004, which the run-off presidential election that Yanukovych seemed to have won at the time. Leading the primary opposition against Yanukovych, Tymoshenko and other supporters argued the election results were rigged, and demanded a re-run second round election. The leaders of the Orange Revolution portrayed Yanukovych as a corrupt russian lackey who would stop Ukraine’s democratization and westernization. the events escalated into a political crisis with widespread protests, leading the Ukrainian Supreme Court to reject the original run-off ballot and order a second round ballot. after the second election, Yanukovych lost to the opposing presidential candidate, pro-western Viktor Yushchenko.

However, Yanukovych ran again for president in the 2010 elections, and narrowly won the run-off election against then Prime Minister Tymoshenko by a margin of less than four percent. Tymoshenko challenged the election results by appealing to the Ukrainian Supreme Court, though she later dropped the appeal, stating she did not believe she would receive a fair hearing. In addition to criticizing the Ukrainian judiciary, Tymoshenko and her political supporters boycotted Yanukovych’s inauguration.

Recognizing that Tymoshenko and Yanukovych have long since been political opponents, news of the arrest has had a significant impact on the international political scene. International commentators have criticized Yanukovych for using his power to eliminate his political opposition. representatives from both the european Union and the United States have expressed concerns over the treatment of the former Ukrainian prime minister, while international legal experts have noted that brokering such a gas deal would not warrant an arrest for a crime.

Tymoshenko was charged with abuse of power in June 2011, and arrested in Kiev for contempt in August. In october, she was sentenced to seven years in prison, evoking international criticism. later, the Ukrainian government added new charges against Tymoshenko, this time regarding tax evasion and embezzlement from a reopened case from fifteen years earlier, a strong signal to the international community that Yanukovych would not submit to the international pressures to free Tymoshenko. In december, Tymoshenko was transferred to another prison camp 300 miles east of Kiev in order to reduce media coverage of the controversy. Nevertheless, official visits from the european Parliament report that Tymoshenko was abused and tortured in detention, and denied fundamental prisoners’ rights.

Tymoshenko’s arrest was only part of Yanukovych’s greater pro-russian crackdown on pro-western opposition. The Ukrainian government has also imposed a four-year sentence on Tymoshenko’s former interior minister for embezzlement and abuse of office. Prosecutors accused him of hiring an overage driver under official government rules, a bizarre set of charges fit only for political prisoners. In addition, the former economic minister under Tymoshenko fled to the Czech republic in January, where he was granted political asylum.

These arrests by the Ukrainian government have strained its relations with the european Union. Despite support for integrating Ukraine into the european Union, EU representatives worry that Ukraine is not sufficiently democratic for membership. Historically, Ukraine has pushed for free trade and association agreements with the european Union under the european neighborhood Policy, which promises financial assistance to neighboring developing countries east and south of the European Union. However, the European Neighborhood Policy demands strict conditions for democratic governmental reform, and the recent Ukrainian governmental crackdown on political opposition only further worsens Ukraine’s case for assistance and integration. despite the european Union’s condemnations of Tymoshenko’s arrest, Yanukovych has stood firm to his position and refused to bend to international pressures.

This failure in democratization and governmental reform can be attributed to the European Union’s promotion of institutional and procedural characteristics of a democracy, like elections, over the less tangible principles and mechanisms that allow for societal control of the distribution of power beyond the ruling elite. In response to the european Union’s conditions for democratization, Ukraine has succeeded in implementing formal democratic procedures as part of its efforts to seeking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. The outcome of the orange revolution shows how proper democratic procedures can respond to corrupt elections.

However, scholars have noted that the Ukrainian elite compensate for these formal democratic reforms by searching for other means to consolidate power. In addition to international legitimacy, the Ukrainian elite also seek to maintain their power in the new democratic framework. This compensation strategy results in cases like that of Tymoshenko, in which formal trials are held with real charges, but with disproportionate punishments.

The relationship between Ukraine and the european Union has been characterized as a former Soviet satellite slowly democratizing and integrating itself with the west. Despite the institution of formal democratic procedures, the european Union and Ukraine still must address the root problems that led to the questionable arrests and treatment of the pro-western Ukrainian opposition.