BRUSSELS (AP) — The leaders of the European Union and Ukraine are meeting Monday in Brussels to try to forge closer ties, but the EU remains concerned about what it calls "political prosecutions" in the former Soviet country.
In Kiev, several thousand people marched near government buildings denouncing President Viktor Yanukovych, who is attending the summit in Brussels.
The rally marked Yanukovych's third-year anniversary in office. The protesters chanted "Free Yulia," demanding that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence on abuse-of-office charges and could face life imprisonment in a separate murder case, be released from jail.
The West has condemned the prosecution of Tymoshenko and her top allies as politically motivated and urged Ukrainian officials to release them. EU officials have said that an important cooperation agreement cannot go forward until concerns about democracy and misuse of the justice system have been resolved.
Tymoshenko says she is innocent of all charges and accuses Yanukovych of having thrown her in jail to bar her from last October's parliamentary elections and a presidential election in 2015.
Yanukovych insists the case is not political and he is unable to interfere with the judicial process. He has said repeatedly that close relations with the European Union are his top goal and indicated that Tymoshenko's case should be resolved soon.
But at the same time, government prosecutors have made Tymoshenko a formal suspect in organizing the murder of a businessman 17 years ago and threatened her with life in prison.
The situation leaves European Union officials trying to balance different goals. On the one hand, they would like to use aid and a possible free-trade agreement to lure Ukraine into leaning toward the West rather than falling under Russian influence.
On the other hand, the EU prides itself on its insistence that its partners observe human rights and the rule of law, so the perception that the judicial system in Ukraine is being misused for political purposes creates an impediment to closer relations.
EU officials expect, however, to announce a 610 million euro ($804 million) aid package for Ukraine at Monday's summit. And since 1991, the EU has given Ukraine more than euro 3 billion ($4 billion) in assistance.
In March, 2012, Ukraine and the European Union initialed, or reached preliminary accord on, a new relationship between the two that would include a free-trade agreement. European Union officials hope to sign the agreement in November in Lithuania, according to a statement — provided Ukraine makes progress in "addressing the issue of selective justice."
Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin .