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Ukraine's parliament delays vote on EU-backed bill to release jailed ex-PM Tymoshenko

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KYIV, - Ukraine's parliament on Wednesday delayed a key vote on the release of jailed former Ukrainian premier Yulia Tymoshenko, a move that threatens to derail this ex-Soviet republic's push toward the European Union and shift Kyiv back into Russia's orbit.

Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Rybak closed the session, attended by two top EU envoys, saying the bill allowing Tymoshenko to travel to Germany for medical treatment was not yet ready and thus could not be brought to a vote. He said they will take up the bill again on Tuesday, when parliament meets next.

EU officials have warned that they will not sign a free-trade and political association agreement with Ukraine if Tymoshenko remains in jail and have urged her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych to release her for treatment in Germany as a compromise measure. The failure to pass the bill on Wednesday means that Ukraine has missed two key deadlines to meet EU conditions ahead of the Nov. 28-29 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Opposition leaders accused Yanukovych and his allies in parliament of selling out to Russia and purposely sabotaging the long-awaited EU deal. Russia staunchly opposes the signing of the agreement and has used threats, sanctions and offers of price discounts in an attempt to lure Kyiv away from the EU and into a Moscow-led customs union instead.

After the session was closed, parliament erupted with angry chants of "Shame! Shame!" from opposition lawmakers, some dressed in white sweaters that read "Freedom to Ukraine" and others wearing red sweaters reading "Ukraine is Europe."

"It's a clear answer as to whether Viktor Yanukovych is ready to sign the agreement with the European Union," opposition leader and top Tymoshenko ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk told parliament after it became clear that the vote would not take place. "You are ready only for political persecution, blackmail and pressure and to hold on to your power. We, however, want the power to belong to the people of Ukraine."

Later the opposition softened its stance, calling on Yanukovych to ensure the passage of the bill next week. Opposition leaders urged the two EU envoys, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament President Pat Cox, who were scheduled to deliver a report in Brussels later in the day on Kyiv's readiness to sign the deal, not to give a negative assessment and give Ukraine some more time.

Meanwhile, in another sign that Kyiv might be tilting toward Moscow, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told his Cabinet on Wednesday that normalizations of ties with Russia is Ukraine's top priority.

Tim Ash, chief emerging-markets economist at Standard Bank, suggested that even after a possible red light from the Kwasniewski and Cox mission and from EU foreign ministers when they meet on Nov. 19, Yanukovych could theoretically save the EU deal by securing Tymoshenko's release right on the eve of the summit.

"The ball will then be in the court of the Yanukovych administration to see whether they can relight the process in the two weeks leading up to Vilnius, i.e. by passing legislation to free Tymoshenko," Ash said in a note.

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