The United States warned Ukraine on Saturday the prosecution of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was damaging its ties with the West, but a Ukrainian official responded by asking for U.S. help to mount another criminal probe against her.
The case of Tymoshenko, a former prime minister jailed for seven years for alleged abuse of office, dominated a two-day international gathering ahead of a parliamentary election next month which Ukraine hopes will enhance its democratic credentials.
Just a day after President Viktor Yanukovich told the conference he expected the October 28 poll to help Ukraine seal a long-sought association agreement with the European Union, a senior U.S. State Department official said it was falling short of democratic standards.
"I think if the international community, the international observers were to give a grade today on this election environment and whether it is going to mark a step towards Europe and the West, I think it failed that test today," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia told the conference on the Black Sea coast.
Most commentators expect Yanukovich's allies to emerge from the election with a continued majority in the 450-seat chamber even though his government's tax and pension reforms have made it unpopular.
Two of the main opposition parties, including Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party, have united to fight the election. But the imprisonment of the 51-year-old firebrand, the most vibrant figure in the opposition, has greatly weakened their campaign.
Echoing earlier comments by officials from the European Union, Melia listed Tymoshenko's jailing as one of the main U.S. concerns.
"The election is another important moment for national choices, national decision-making and I think that unless or until some significant steps are taken to improve things like the election environment you are not going to be able to move as closely as many of you want to Europe and the United States," he said.
Hours later, Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin told the same audience that his office was seeking U.S. help in another criminal probe against Tymoshenko.
"We intend to bring up fresh charges against the former prime minister and some of the information that we need is in the United States," he said.
Kuzmin did not elaborate on the charges but has previously said prosecutors are investigating Tymoshenko's alleged involvement in a 1996 contract killing of a parliament deputy.
State prosecutors want to question another former prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, who has been convicted in the United States for money-laundering, fraud and extortion, Kuzmin said.
Tymoshenko emerged as a major player in the energy business in the heady 1990s when Lazarenko was in power and she was briefly a member of his political party.
Kuzmin said prosecutors also wanted to question Mykola Melnichenko, a former presidential security guard who has, after leaving Ukraine, claimed he had evidence linking Tymoshenko to the murder case.
Tymoshenko has dismissed all charges and allegations against her as politically motivated by Yanukovich, who narrowly beat her for the presidency in a run-off vote in February 2010. The United States and the EU say her prosecution smacks of "selective justice".
EU officials on Friday expressed a similarly dim view of Ukraine's democratic progress, saying Tymoshenko's case remained a stumbling block to good relations.
Speaking at the conference on Friday, Yanukovich ignored the Tymoshenko case and said the October election would help Ukraine's integration into the European mainstream, a top priority in his foreign affairs agenda.
But Melia made it clear that Tymoshenko's jailing would affect the West's judgment on the election as an exercise in democracy.
"I think with the political prosecution, politically directed prosecutions against certain opposition candidates, that has serious consequences on the quality of the election here," Melia said.
Citing other U.S. concerns, Melia said some Ukrainian media were biased against the opposition in their coverage while others, such as the TVi television station which has complained about tax police raids and steps reducing its audience, were under pressure.
"Some of the independent media like TVi are undergoing very specific, directed harassment," Melia said. He also questioned the procedure used to appoint local election commissions.
He urged the government to address these issues before the election.
"It is time for choices to be made by Ukrainians. Good choices will work, bad choices will have consequences. There is a number of things that could be done yet," he said.