I’ve long admired former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko for her fiery rhetoric and steely nerve. But even as she languishes in prison, Tymoshenko might be about to engineer her most significant political coup yet: a boycott of the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer tournament by European governments.
With the signature blond braid that sits – crown-like – above her head and her glamorous, almost regal bearing, one could easily mistake Tymoshenko for pure political window dressing. But that would seriously underestimate this woman’s power and influence. Tymoshenko played a major role – alongside her onetime ally Viktor Yushchenko – in spearheading Ukraine’s 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution. Subsequently, she served as prime minister of the country from 2007 to 2010, when she narrowly lost an election to current president Viktor Yanukovich.
Tymoshenko’s fortunes changed last year when she was jailed for seven years over a controversial natural gas deal with Russia during her tenure as prime minister. Many – including Tymoshenko herself – viewed her arrest and imprisonment as a crackdown on political opposition in the Ukraine as well as retribution by Yanukovich against his main political rival.
Since April of this year, however, her situation has deteriorated significantly. She is now on a hunger strike following what she claims was a brutal beating April 20 by prison guards, who she maintains punched her and twisted her arms and legs while forcibly taking her to a hospital to be treated for chronic back pain. She has refused any medical treatment beyond pain killers to date, insisting that she must have her medical treatment abroad. German doctors who have examined her say that she is in “urgent need of specialized care” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly requested that the Ukrainian authorities send her to Germany for “proper treatment” of her ailments.
Which is where soccer enters the picture. Along with Poland, Ukraine is meant to host the prestigious Euro 2012 next month, the main football (soccer) competition among European teams. The Euro Cup is held every four years, alternating (every two years) with the World Cup. As my son – an avid football fan – put it to me recently, he’s looking more forward to the launch of Euro 2012 in June than he is to the summer Olympics in July. Such is football fever here in Europe.
Except that the competition might not go off quite as planned.
In short order, government after government in Europe has come out saying that they will not attend the Euro Cup in the Ukraine unless Tymoshenko’s conditions and treatment improve. European Commission head José Manuel Barroso has already refused to attend the tournament, and on Wednesday, Holland and Austria added themselves to this list. Merkel is thought to be considering a similar boycott by Germany. Additionally, six European presidents decided not to travel to a summit in Ukraine next week, and Germany has also said it may block a pending E.U.-Ukraine political and trade deal if Kiev is seen to be showing contempt for the rule of law.
Ukrainian officials deny that Tymoshenko has been beaten and have publicly criticized what they see as the West’s intervention in their internal political affairs. “We would not like to think that the political leaders of Germany are capable of reviving the methods of the Cold War and making sport a hostage of politics,” spokesman Oleg Voloshin said to the BBC.
Others have questioned the effectiveness of boycotting a sporting event in the name of human rights.
EUFA cup officials insist that the games will still go on as planned, even if European governments choose not to attend. But if Merkel throws her force behind the boycott – and whoever wins the upcoming French presidential elections does as well – there will be lots of pressure on British Prime Minister David Cameron to follow suit.
That will make quite a political statement. And hopefully, Tymoshenko will get the medical attention that she deserves.