The diplomatic clouds are gathering over Ukraine these days because of the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko while in prison. But the cancellation of this summit is just a minor part of the pain Ukraine is about to endure, and certainly the lesser among several sources of trouble. There could be other forms of boycott that would reach somewhat deeper into Ukraine's pocket in a year that's obviously going to be very important for the country. Why? Let's see why.
Being a former football (okay, soccer) maniac myself (semi-pro player, and footie fan and all that), I can't help but worry about the Euro'2012, the biggest international competition of the continent. It takes place once in 4 years - this year the joint hosts are to be Poland and Ukraine.
Now, the international football competitions of this sort usually remind us of summer, sunshine and a festive atmosphere. After all that's what I'm going there for. Millions of people attend those huge events and even more watch the matches on TV, basically looking for two things: entertainment and leisure. But somehow Ukraine, a country of spectacular natural beauty, arguably the most beautiful women in the world (wink), and the home of the gorgeous Crimea and the elegant Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea, ain't calling such nice associations at all these days. It's as if one of the two hosts of Euro'12 has a heavy iron chain of problems hanging around its neck, just a month before the start of the tournament. And this time the concerns aren't coming from where UEFA was expecting, namely the problems with the preparation of the infrastructure. Nope. It's coming from the domain of politics.
First, Kyiv became the target of European criticism because of the fishy circumstances around the verdict against former PM Yulia Tymoshenko (the "Gas Princess" has earned her nickname for a reason). She was sentenced to 7 years in prison for fraud and corruption. She soon complained of being tortured in prison. Then there came the series of bombings in Dnipropetrovsk that'll shake the confidence of the football fans. And as if that weren't enough, reports of police brutality in Lviv keep mounting, plus complaints about the insanely pumped up hotel prices in the Euro'12 hosting cities across Ukraine, a problem I'll myself have to be dealing with soon, I'm afraid. Seems like overall, this summer won't be that fesive for Ukraine, after all.
The political drama resumed shortly after Yulia's arrest, when her daughter and her lawyer published photos and info that she had been abused by the guards at the Kharkiv prison. Tymoshenko herself went on hunger strike to draw attention because she insisted to be examined by an independent medical expert and not by the doctor at the prison. She kept claiming that her condition was deteriorating, and the pictures seem to confirm this. A host of European politicians chastised Yanukovich's government for the whole court farce, but initially rather apathetically. Although, granted, the most frequently used refrain was that the trial had been politically motivated and was Yanukovich's way to remove a major political rival from his way. But now, those who were criticising him so shyly before, are suddenly sounding like a chorus, surprisingly unanimous and sharp in their statements.
After the German and the Czech president announced they wouldn't be going to the summit of the Central and Eastern European leaders in Yalta (yeah, that same resort Yalta) that was to be held on May 11-12, within a week lots of their fellow politicians followed suit. The president of the European Council, Jose Manuel Barroso also announced he wouldn't be going to Ukraine, but for a long time it remained unclear if he meant the Yalta summit or the Euro'12 (where his home country Portugal is playing in a rather tough group btw). The Portuguese team has to play their matches exactly in two Ukrainian cities, Kharkiv and Lviv. The boycott of the football tournament is indeed another form of political initiative, and actually it was initiated by Angela Merkel. She was the first to announce she wouldn't attend even one match in Ukraine if Tymoshenko is not allowed proper medical treatment (Germany is in the same group with Portugal). Not long after that, the leaders of Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria also joined the boycott of the Ukrainian "half" of the tournament.
The German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle went even further. "EU's association agreement with Ukraine will not be ratified until the country goes on the road to the rule of law". Westerwelle was obviously talking about the trials against the former Ukrainian foreign miniser Yuriy Lutsenko and another two ministers from the previous Tymoshenko cabinet - they're accused of fraud and abuse of power.
All of this has definitely drawn the attention to the rulers in Kyiv and it has pissed off Yanukovich et al. But frankly, it's doubtful if all the political hysteria will have a long-term effect. In any case, Yanukovich's priority is to concentrate more and more power into his hands, and he doesn't seem to be bothered by the prospect of EU's doors being slammed at his face. And, sure, there probably won't be any European diplomats and politicians on the Ukrainian stadiums during Euro'12, but who'd want to meet with the Ukrainian PM anyway? Of course he wouldn't want to go into isolation like Lukashenko did in Belarus, but a partial boycott from some European politicians doesn't seem likely to shake his position too much, I don't think.
But one thing is for sure. Despite the apparent "we don't give a shit" kind of approach on Ukraine's part, the boycott and the other problems are obviously starting to drag Kyiv out of their skin, because last week the foreign minister came out with an outright passive-aggressive response that "the politicising of sports events will be destructive for the Euro 2012". And he's not alone in this. Ukraine's cousins and co-organisers of the event, Poland suddenly found themselves with a serious problem on their hands, from which they won't be able to escape. So they've also protested the boycott. They're saying it won't bring anything positive in the relations between Europe and Ukraine. No doubt Poland has also invested a lot of efforts and hopes in this tournament, both political and economic. And unlike Ukraine it has all reasons to be hoping that the event will launch them onto the big scene.
A possible middle ground solution to the situation could be if Yanukovich allows Tymoshenko to go for treatment abroad. The Ukrainian vice-PM Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy even went so far in his cynicism as to propose something like a deal in Brussels: if "all problems between Ukraine and the EU" are solved, then the Ukrainian parliament could pass a law that would pardon Tymoshenko altogether. Wohow, easy tiger!
But whatever Kyiv claims in order to savour the last remnants of its image just before the tournament, after the final whistle on the Euro'12 Final (thankfully, I'm going to attend btw), Ukraine will still be drifting further apart from Europe, instead of getting closer. Yanukovich won't change his course until he has secured a full majority in parliament on the elections in October. And probably he'll stiffen his position even more after that, if he does achieve that. The traditional gap between words and actions that's become part of Ukrainian politics in recent decades, has become really vast since 2010. And right now nothing can be fixed just with words. Right now Ukraine is at a point where Europe doesn't believe a single word it says any more.
I have no doubt that Kyiv will try their fave game of opposites, placing EU vs Russia in their rhetoric, but this card is too worn out already. It's a game where every next move leaves them less room for manoeuvring. Right now Ukraine is squeezed between Brussel's reluctance to negotiate and Russia's pressing to cram it into an "Eurasian" customs union together with such nice democracies like Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Ukrainians don't want to be in that union, but if he really really had to choose, Yanukovich would rather prefer to be a puppet president in such a union, than non-president in an EU member state. Of course Ukraine is too big and too important to be let to fail and become another Belarus. But, as will definitely become evident on Euro 2012, it's also too far from being the new Poland.