It is only a month from now that Ukraine and Poland will host Europe’s greatest sports event, the Euro 2012 soccer championship, but the relations between the political leaders in Kiev and their European counterparts could hardly be worse. The reason for the fallout? Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
What President Viktor Yanukovich had hoped would be a showcase for Ukraine’s reasonable ambitions to join the European Union has turned into heated diplomatic debate about the democratic shortcomings of his government.
A host of European politicians, from Germany’s President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have announced in recent days that they are considering boycotting matches in Ukraine in protest of Mrs. Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. On Thursday a spokesman of the EU Commission declared that all 27 commissioners would stay away from any Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine.
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“Ukraine wanted to use the European Championships as an advertisement,” says Philipp Missfelder, foreign policy spokesman for the governing Christian Democratic party in Germany. “Now it has turned into a disaster. And it’s the government’s responsibility. They are isolating Ukraine.”
Sentenced to seven years in prison for “criminal abuse” during her tenure as prime minister, Tymoshenko’s trial in October 2011 was criticized by both the European Union and the US as politically motivated and unfair. Now reports suggest that Tymoshenko, who gained international prominence as leader of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, is unwell and on hunger strike over the conditions of her imprisonment.
In February two German physicians travelled to the prison camp in the city of Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine where Tymoshenko is held and confirmed reports that she was “seriously ill.” Since then, the German government has tried to convince Kiev to let the politician seek treatment in a German hospital. Instead the Ukrainian leadership had her transferred to a Ukrainian clinic – a move that was carried out against her will and caused her to declare a hunger strike, according to Tymoshenko’s daughter, Yevgenia.
The threat of a boycott, though supported by an outspoken majority among European politicians, is not without critics. Sport officials like Thomas Bach, vice president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have warned against using the Euro 2012 as a political tool.
“Sports boycotts have never worked,” Mr. Bach said in an interview on German radio HR. “Sport can help building bridges rather than walls. But in order to do that it needs to be politically neutral.”
The sudden concern for Tymoshenko’s well-being is seen with some skepticism, particularly in Eastern Europe.
In Poland, an EU member state, Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned that the EU would end up hurting itself with the boycott. The country’s two most important daily newspapers, the center-left Gazeta Wyborcza and the center-right Rzeczpospolita, both ran op-eds questioning the motives of German and European politicians for interfering on Tymoshenko’s behalf.
“Where were these pro-democracy voices before the Olympic Games in China? Ukraine is a small opponent and an easy target for Western politicians eager to raise their profile,” Rzeczpospolita said in a commentary yesterday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the possible boycott. “I stick to the Olympic principle of keeping politics and sport apart,” he said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
But in a surprise move, Mr. Putin offered Tymoshenko medical treatment in a Russian hospital. It was Putin himself who signed the natural gas deal with Tymoshenko, for which she was convicted of allegedly violating Ukrainian interests. At the time of the trial the Russian government refrained from any comment.
It is Ukraine’s position between Russia and the EU which is at the heart of things, according to Jörg Forbrig, an expert on Eastern Europe with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
“This is a test whether Ukraine’s declarations of commitment to democracy and an association with the European Union are genuine,” says Mr. Forbrig. “In the past Ukraine has tried to play both sides. And there are concerns in Brussels that Ukraine could follow the example of its neighbor Belarus and take a more authoritarian direction. So, the EU thought, 'Now is a good moment for a strong signal'.”