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Ukraine: Yulia Tymoshenko's Plight and Euro 2012

There must be some corners on the web (e.g., here and here) where football fans are still having apolitical discussions of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, scheduled to take place in Poland and Ukraine from June 8 to July 1. For the past few weeks, however, the upcoming sporting event has featured prominently in arguments and discussions among those who seem more interested in the Ukrainian and European politics than sports.

Earlier this month, several European politicians, including the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced their plans to boycott Euro 2012 in protest against the imprisonment of ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko. However, there is no consensus among the EU officials yet on whether “to call a political boycott of the Ukraine half of the Euro 2012 football championships.”

Tymoshenko's arrest came on August 5, 2011, a little over a month after the beginning of her first trial on June 24. She was kept at Kyiv's Lukyanivska Prison (GV texts about this facility are here and here) until December 30, when she was transferred to the Kachanivska Penal Colony in Kharkiv to serve a seven-year sentence for exceeding her powers as Prime Minister. Reports of Tymoshenko's health problems and her 20-day hunger strike have dominated the recent coverage of her case. On April 19, another trial of Tymoshenko began in Kharkiv, but she refused to attend it. The hearing of this second case, in which Tymoshenko is charged with evading taxes in the 1990s, has been postponed until late May.

The Euro 2012 trophy presentation ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by ALEKSANDER PEREVOZNIK, copyright © Demotix (May 11, 2012)

While the preparation for the tournament in Ukraine was marred by a number of other controversies (e.g., the cruel treatment of stray animals; accusations of hotel price gouging; and, of all things, the threat posed by the “beautiful Ukrainian women”), this latest international scandal seems to have done the most harm to Ukraine's image so far.

On May 3, the Economist asked readers in an online poll if they supported the calls to boycott the games held in Ukraine:

The apparently brutal treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, an imprisoned Ukrainian opposition leader, has led to calls for European leaders to stay away from Ukrainian matches in the upcoming Euro 2012 football tournament, which the country is hosting jointly with Poland.

The Economist agrees with these calls. Do you?

Of the 1,834 votes cast so far, 68 percent are in favor of the boycott and 32 percent are against it.

Odessablogger – who believes that “the football is the wrong stick to hit Ukraine with given the need for EU personalities to interact directly with the Ukrainian people” – recounted some of the examples of sports and politics “colliding” in the past, and quoted from the April 28 Der Spiegel interview [en] with boxer and politician Vitali Klitschko, who opposes the boycott of Euro 2012:

“[...] This tournament is the biggest sporting event in the history of Ukraine. It has to happen. It is even an excellent opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the maladministration in our country. [...]“

Odessablogger also noted Yulia Tymoshenko's stance on the boycott:

[...] In case you are wondering, the current position taken by Ms Tymoshenko herself over the matter, is that there should not be a boycott because of her, and that the Ukrainian people should see the EU leaders in Ukraine as it will encourage them to look to the EU rather than think they have been written off. [...]

Marek Siwiec, a Polish politician and Member of the European Parliament, explained on his BlogActiv.eu blog why he did not support the boycott:

[...] In Poland we need to understand (and I repeated it many times) that the football championship for Ukrainians is a national question – a source of pride, regardless of political views. Ukrainians deserve to have this tournament in their country in an atmosphere of festivity, in spite of all. [...]

[...] Besides, as a whole political class, just as we act together in defence of Yulia Tymoshenko, in this case we should separate sport from politics. If there was somebody in Poland who would like to take this opportunity to rob something from Ukrainians, I warn – the political costs in the mutual relations will be long lasting and serious. [...]

Jonathan Hibberd of Chicken in Kiev wrote about Germany's stance on Euro 2012 in Ukraine:

Merkel boycotts Ukraine? Business as usual.

Germany has been boycotting Ukraine's interests for some time. [...]

[...] Germany should in fact, albeit indirectly, accept some responsibility for what has happened here since 2010. As one leading commentator said a couple of years back, it would have meant an awful lot if Chancellor Merkel had come to Kiev and made a speech in support of Ukraine's European ambitions. Don't forget how narrowly Tymoshenko lost the Presidential election. German endorsement of a European and Euro-Atlantic choice for Ukraine might well have been enough to swing the election for her, but instead it was held against a background of resignation, that Europe didn't want Ukraine and rapprochement with Russia was paramount. Merkel was not there for her then. [...]

At OpenDemocracy.net, Valery Kalnysh, deputy editor of the Kommersant Ukraina newspaper, shared this possible explanation for the German leader's position:

[...] But why, on the other hand, is Germany so active in taking up the cudgels against Ukraine? During the course of a conversation, a German journalist commented ‘It’s quite easy for Merkel to attack Ukraine and demand respect for human rights. Unlike Russia, you have no oil or gas and you’re not as strong and influential as China. It’s convenient to criticise Ukraine and it does great things for [her] popularity rating.’ [...]

LEvko of Foreign Notes explained “why Ukraine's Euro 2012 [would] not be as big a success as hoped”:

[...] In previous tournaments, in my experience, many fans have made an extended holiday of their visits to countries hosting such events; days between matches being spent on the beach, sightseeing, etc. etc. In countries such as Austria/Switzerland or Portugal, where tourism is highly developed, this was an attractive proposition..but, no disrespect intended…Kharkiv? Dontesk?

Europe is currently in the deepest economic crisis since WW2. There is little cash around..not enough to pay the Ukraine's rip-off hotel prices.

Then there's the Olympic games in London later in the year – an attractive draw for sports fans.

[...] But the tsunami of bad press in Europe's mass media over the Tymoshenko affair will be the final turn-off. Fans will rather stay at home, or, at best, fly in and out for matches, just like they do for European club matches.. [...]

Olga Mrinska of Regional Accents reflected [uk] on the Euro 2012 boycott scandal in the context of the general social and political situation in Ukraine:

[...] The repressive race aimed at the opposition leaders has reached its apogee in the past year, and domestic politics has become the center of attention of world leaders. [...] Today's Ukraine is, above all, associated with the jailed opposition, lack of freedom of speech, kleptomaniac and lying officials. Our president must have naively (???) believed that [it's possible to endlessly mislead these "spineless" European leaders and feed them with "mañana" [empty promises] at any mention of the democratic reforms – the leaders who live in ordinary houses in the city center (Germany), ride bicycles (the Netherlands), fly regular commercial flights (Finland) and have incomparably fewer guards that he does (choose any EU country).] And when these Europeans have finally stood up [...], [the Ukrainian leaders began talking] of the Cold War era and bias. In my opinion, this is a lousy excuse…

The problem isn't with the Europeans, but with the Ukrainians – the voters who have brought to power people without the intellect, without a strategic vision and without the belief in the better future for the country and its people. The problem is with the so-called elite that, just like those hotel owners, lives only in the present, without giving any thought to the future.

Despite the avalanche of negative information about Ukraine in the world media, justified in most cases, we still have a chance to [show Ukraine in a positive light] to those football fans who would attend the Euro. Out people are the last frontier and the last hope. The end result and the final assessment of the event depends on their open-mindedness, decency and hospitality. [...]

Finally, a few words about the aspect of Euro 2012 that has gone largely unnoticed – [the view that the Ukrainians themselves have of the event]. Five years ago, we were promised an ocean of private investments, a new and shining infrastructure that would serve host cities for decades, an influx of tourists and billions for the economy. Instead, residents of Kyiv and other cities have experienced mainly negative consequences – destruction of parks, totally dug-up cities, closed streets, altered public transportation routes, [...], growing prices, etc. [...]

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