By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - A summit meeting between the European Union and Ukraine seems certain to run aground on Monday over the Kiev leadership's treatment of political opponents instead of showcasing - as once planned - the launch of a new strategic relationship.
The crowning moment of the summit, four years in the making, was to have been the signing of an association agreement between the 27-member bloc and the ex-Soviet republic, encompassing a free trade deal.
But, with President Viktor Yanukovich refusing to relent and bring about the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and other political opponents as the EU has urged, any signing or initialing is certain to be off the agenda.
Tymoshenko, an implacable foe of Yanukovich, was sentenced in October to seven years in jail for abuse-of-office while she was prime minister after a trial which she said was a "lynching" by her adversary.
The EU says the politically-motivated trial raises questions over the democratic credentials of Yanukovich's leadership and his commitment to the values of mainstream Europe.
Yanukovich himself said Friday that Ukraine was "geared up" for the agreement to be signed, though his optimism was not shared by other Ukrainian politicians.
"The association agreement will not be initialed. As of today, the text is not ready," Leonid Kozhar, a parliamentary deputy and official of Yanukovich's Regions Party, said on Channel 5 television.
EU diplomats said in Brussels that it remained unclear if the text of the agreement would be concluded, and EU ambassadors had anyway agreed the deal should not be initialed even if it were finalized.
The ghost at the feast seems certain to be Tymoshenko. The stylish, charismatic politician was last seen publicly last week, looking pale and gaunt, on a video clip filmed of her in a prison bed by the authorities apparently against her will.
Her camp said it planned Monday to issue an appeal by Tymoshenko from jail. It seemed likely that the 51-year-old politician would again call for the association agreement to be signed - irrespective of her plight - for the good of Ukraine.
The EU diplomats said the two sides had concluded an integral text for the agreement but were still haggling over a clause in the preamble of the deal. Ukraine wants this to confirm its identity as a European state and thus its eligibility for eventual EU membership, the EU diplomats said.
However, the EU wanted to see evidence of improvement in Ukraine's treatment of political opponents, they said.
Any deal would still need to be ratified by parliaments of all the 27 EU states and the European Parliament before it could be implemented, a process that at the best of times can take many months.
EU diplomats say a joint statement from the summit simply acknowledging the talks have been formally concluded may be the best that could emerge -- but this would be tantamount to a diplomatic failure.
A failed summit will leave Yanuklovich and his government with a weakened hand in dealings with Moscow from whom it is seeking a more advantageous gas pricing deal.
Moscow is seeking to entice Ukraine away from the EU and may now step up pressure on Kiev to consider joining a customs union in exchange for getting cheaper gas.
Tymoshenko was a leading light in the Orange Revolution protests of 2004-5 which denied Yanukovich his first bid for the presidency. She went on to lose narrowly to Yanukovich in a run-off for the presidency in February 2010.
Some political commentators in Kiev say her prosecution is personally driven by Yanukovich who has not forgotten her key role in the Orange Revolution or forgiven her for her biting personal attacks during the 2010 election campaign.
Other insiders say Yanuovich is strongly influenced by powerful figures in the gas business who see Tymoshenko as a threat to their interests if she came to power again.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels: Writing By Richard Balmforth)