KIEV: When the President, Viktor Yanukovich, took office last year, a central question was whether he would lead Ukraine west, towards Europe, or into a tight symbiosis with the country's Soviet-era masters in Moscow.
Eighteen months of cautious navigation hit a watershed on Tuesday, when a court in Kiev sentenced the country's most prominent opposition politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, to seven years in prison.
European leaders have warned Ukraine that its decision to jail Tymoshenko, the country's former prime minister, would have ''profound implications'' for its attempts to join the EU.
For her part, Tymoshenko said that the trial would not have been out of place in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union after the presiding judge, Rodion Kireyev, ruled in a politically tinged verdict that she had ''criminally'' exceeded her powers in 2009 to sign a gas deal with Moscow.
Tymoshenko, visibly angry, responded by telling the court: ''Today it has become clear to everyone that the country is ruled by a dictatorship. I beg you to unite to overturn this authoritarian regime …
''You know very well that the sentence is not being pronounced by Judge Kireyev, but by President Yanukovich.''
Leaders in Europe condemned the case as politically motivated and hinted they are unlikely to ratify a free trade and association agreement with Ukraine, a project four years in the making.
Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, said he was bewildered by the sentence, London's The Daily Telegraph reported. ''I do not completely understand why she has been given these seven years,'' he said, adding that it was ''dangerous and counterproductive to question'' the gas deal.
Prosecutors say Tymoshenko harmed Ukraine's interests when, as prime minister, she negotiated with Russia over the price of natural gas. The ruling also excludes her from politics for 10 years and levies a fine of about $US190 million ($190.7 million).
With Tymoshenko's trial at an end, governments in Europe will have to decide whether to make good on their warnings that imprisoning her will freeze efforts to integrate with Ukraine politically and economically.
Mr Yanukovich has intense diplomatic pressure from Western partners, but Ukraine also has been under pressure from Russia to join its own economic bloc, along with both Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Mr Yanukovich has made integrating with Europe a central goal and is likely to head off catastrophic damage by softening Tymoshenko's conviction.
One route would be decriminalising the article under which she was convicted. That would clear her name and she would be able to run in parliamentary elections next year, Serhiy Vlasenko, one of her lawyers, said.
This could occur as soon as next week, so that Mr Yanukovich would be welcome at EU talks in Brussels on October 20.
He suggested as much on Tuesday, when he told journalists: ''This is not a final decision.''
The New York Times, Guardian News & Media