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I always thought Ukraine's real birthday was on December 1st, not August 24th. I was in Kiev in August 1991, learning Ukrainian at ‘MAU' (pronounced like Chairman Mao), the International Association of Ukrainian Studies. We were all fearful on the morning of August 19th, precisely because Ukraine was largely a bystander to events unfolding elsewhere (unless you count the fact that Gorbachev's longer than expected holiday was on Ukrainian territory in Crimea). After two days of Kravchuk's prevarication, Rukh and others deserve credit for making sure the Rada seized the initiative and declared independence on Saturday the 24th, before all-Soviet institutions swung back into action on Monday 26th. Small margins matter. But in truth the opportunity to act was created by the collapse of central power elsewhere.

In December 1991, on the other hand, the Ukrainians were active players: the decisive vote in the Ukrainian independence referendum defined the Soviet end-game. Moreover, despite the rapid succession of events at Belovezhkaya pushcha and Almaty that left many people confused, the Ukrainian position that the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States' meant precisely that prevailed. The new independent states had certain common interests, but the CIS was not a sovereign replacement for the USSR.

Still, either date makes Ukraine twenty years old, between rival definitions of maturity at eighteen or twenty one. So there in no doubt that Ukraine has not developed as far as we hoped it would back in 1991. The Baltic States are smaller and their national movements were stronger and more united in purpose; but starting conditions were not that different - certainly smaller than the respective outcomes we have today. There have been moments of hope and several false dawns for Ukraine since 1991, most obviously after the Orange Revolution in 2004; but Ukraine has never had the incentive to make difficult changes provided by the early promise of EU and NATO membership for the Baltic States.

But finally Ukraine is within sight of a partial equivalent. The DCFTA. Yes, really. Its dull bureaucratic acronym masks the fact that a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU could provide the long-missing transformative power that anchored states like Estonia and Poland back in the West after 1989.

The total volume of EU-Ukraine trade in 2010 was €28.7 billion; 31.4 percent of Ukraine's trade was with the EU; FDI inflows in 2010 were estimated at a low €2.9 billion. Trade at least was up on the recession year of 2009, though FDI was down; but all these figures are way below potential and could easily multiply overnight. Ukraine‘s exports to the rest of the world will also surge once they are certificated by the EU. Most importantly of all, the DCFTA offers macroeconomic benefits to Ukrainian society as a whole, consumers and producers alike. Agreement is of course not implementation, which would no doubt be slow and partial. Implementation costs would also be high, particularly the building of new institutions to ensure that commitments made on paper are implemented in practice. But, given the chance, the DCFTA would introduce a large proportion of EU commercial law and restructure large parts of the country's still Soviet state bureaucracy along modern, market-friendly lines. An accumulation of small steps would transform the way Ukraine does business, the way the state is run, the lives of ordinary citizens, workers and consumers, and the way business and politics interact.

Russia's rival customs union proposal mainly offers selective benefits to favoured oligarchs (cheap energy once again) and lumps together unrelated issues like gas prices, export tariffs and even border disputes. Despite Russian rhetoric, the DCFTA is not incompatible with maintaining and even expanding the obvious benefits of trade with Russia, particularly because the Russian project is based on copying much of the EU rule book, the acquis communautaire, so that Putin's dream of a Eurasian Economic Union can one day be a partner of the EU.

But this is not where we are in August 2011. By all accounts the EU-Ukraine negotiating team are making continued progress, but the putative ‘agreement' (whether an actual signing or not) at the EU-Ukraine summit in December is under threat for political reasons. And we all know what these are.

Ukraine under Yanukovych is in danger of becoming what academics call a ‘competitive authoritarian' state, that is one where there is apparent competition for power but the rules of contestation are fixed. So far, the new authorities have concentrated on fixing the rules, but there is no meaningful competition at all if your main opponent is taken out the game. With no disrespect to minor opponents and no assumption that Tymoshenko has a divine right to remain leader of the opposition, at the moment she still is.

European leaders like Carl Bildt have therefore rightly made the Tymoshenko trial a red line. The 2012 Rada elections will be rendered meaningless if Tymoshenko is in jail or if an ‘administrative' sentence prohibits her from participating. The problems with the trial itself are well-known. The impression of politically selectivity was guaranteed by the scattergun approach of the prosecution to select any charge that might stick. The attempt to avoid the trial turning into political theatre by cramming it into a tiny courtroom with a youthful judge has obviously backfired. Regardless of any accusation of contempt, imprisonment, to my recollection, normally takes place after a guilty verdict at the end of a trial, not half-way through. A steady stream of prejudicial comments from the powers-that-be has broken principles of sub judice. The idea that the trial is only one of a broad spectrum of prosecutions, including Leonid Kuchma and the odd Party of Regions bureaucrat, is just PR.