Ukraine leader says release of Tymoshenko still in balance

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich speaks during a television interview in Kiev in this August 29, 2013 picture provided by the Ukraine Presidential Press Service. REUTERS/Mykhailo Markiv/Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

YALTA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said on Friday he was trying to solve the issue of his imprisoned opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, to meet demands by European leaders, but that no clear-cut decision had yet been taken. Answering questions about the fate of the former prime minister during a panel discussion at an international conference in Crimea, Yanukovich said: "We are trying, and are seeking even today, to find a way of approaching this very difficult question relating to Tymoshenko." But he went on: "At the moment, we have not yet said either 'Yes' or 'No' (to her being released)." The former Soviet republic, to the dismay of its former Soviet master Russia, is hoping to sign landmark agreements on association and free trade with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in late November. But the EU says Tymoshenko's trial and her seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office, handed out in 2011, smacks of 'selective justice', and her continued confinement could threaten the signing. Tymoshenko is Yanukovich's fiercest political opponent who ran him close for the presidency in February 2010. She was later jailed after a trial which she said was a political vendetta carried out on Yanukovich's orders. Yanukovich, whose government has given him the green light to sign the agreements with the EU at Vilnius, has up to now withstood pressure from Western governments for her release. European envoys are now pressing him to accept a compromise under which she would be released to go to Germany for medical treatment for a chronic back problem which has confined her to hospital under prison guard. Replying to a question from opposition politician Arseny Yatseniuk, he appeared to be ready to work out some sort of compromise. "We still have time and we will work according to the plan we have ... The answer must be such that would allow us to find a legal compromise." But asked by Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister under Tymoshenko, if he would immediately sign a pardon, Yanukovich appeared to suggest that this would first require Tymoshenko admitting her guilt. "Nobody has a bigger interest in solving this issue than I. But there are obstacles. An answer has to be given to ... the courts. Only the court can give an answer or (there can be) a voluntary decision by Tymoshenko. The answer lies in finding a compromise with the participation of Tymoshenko," he said. (Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing By Richard Balmforth, editing by Elizabeth Piper)