MOSCOW -- In a possible sign that political tensions are easing in Ukraine, President Viktor F. Yanukovich pardoned the country's second-most prominent political prisoner on Sunday, but his intentions concerning his biggest rival, who is also in custody, remained unclear.
The pardoned prisoner, Yuri V. Lutsenko, is a former interior minister whose arrest in December 2010 on charges that he had abused his office raised concerns in the European Union and the United States that Ukraine's democracy was at risk. Those worries were heightened the following year when the police arrested Mr. Yanukovich's biggest rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and the leader of the political opposition.
Mr. Yanukovich also freed several lower-profile figures on Sunday, including a former ecology minister, Georgy Filipchuk. But about a dozen other opposition figures remain in prison.
The pardon decree, published by Ukraine's government, laid out a host of factors that went into the decision, including the prisoners' former service to the state, their family affairs and their behavior while in prison.
The statement did not mention a campaign mounted by the European Union to win the release of prisoners in exchange for an agreement on broadened trade relations that includes provisions on human rights and the rule of law.
That agreement would open desperately needed access to European Union markets for Ukraine's struggling economy. The human rights provision has turned the political prisoners into bargaining chips.
European governments are pushing for adoption of the agreement by this fall. The arrest of Ms. Tymoshenko in August 2011 scuttled an earlier opportunity for the agreement's adoption last year. The process is complicated because all 27 member states of the European Union must agree to such a treaty.
Diplomats have often cited the release of Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Lutsenko as conditions before the negotiations can continue. Western governments have called their prosecutions politically motivated.
It is unclear whether the release of Mr. Lutsenko and the other prisoners would suffice. Mr. Lutsenko, though, was upbeat concerning the wider significance of his release as he left Menskoi Prison on Sunday.
He told journalists that "this event for me is a victory for Ukrainian democracy, for world democracy" and that Ukraine was "making correct steps to end political repression."
Ms. Tymoshenko's case is likely to carry far more weight. She was a leader of the 2004 street protests known as the Orange Revolution and was elected to her first term as prime minister in 2005. After her narrow defeat by Mr. Yanukovich in 2010, she was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges that she abused her position in connection with the approval of a contract to buy natural gas from Russia. She now faces new charges involving the 1996 assassination of a member of Parliament.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.