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Political football in Ukraine

The expression “poli­tical football” is usually used as a metaphor for the competitive way politicians tackle certain issues, attempting to use the issue to score points off each other rather than address the matter for its own sake.

However, in the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine and now an opposition politician convicted for abuse of office, the term is taking on a gruesome literal meaning.

The background is this. Back in 2004, Dr Tymoshenko, a politician who became very wealthy by owning a company that was the country’s main importer of Russian gas, was one of the two leaders of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Her main target was Victor Yanukovych, the current President, who was accused of stealing the presidential elections.

To cut a long story short, both Mr Yanukovych and Dr Tymoshenko had turns at being Prime Minister. In the 2010 race for the Presidency, Mr Yanukovych won.

Dr Tymoshenko darkly hinted that he would undo Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. He seems to be going out of his way to prove her right.

He has used the rule of law to prosecute several of his political enemies for corruption. One of them is Dr Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in a women’s penal colony. There is evidence that she has been beaten physically. Dr Tymoshenko, who also needs hospital treatment for a slipdisk, has managed to attract an international outcry over both the sentence and the way she’s being mistreated. She went on a hunger strike and has now been taken to a hospital but problems have cropped up regarding her medical treatment.

And, now, the literal political football.

The EU’s leaders have threatened to boycott the Euro 2012 football games to be held in Ukraine, but not in Poland, and not grace the stands with their presence, with Germany’s Angela Merkel taking the lead.

At one point, Germany even suggested that all of its teams’ games be transferred to Poland, although it seems too late for that. Chancellor Merkel has said she won’t attend Germany’s game against the Netherlands, which takes place in a stadium very close to Dr Tymoshenko’s prison.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has likewise said he will boycott while the UK has hinted that its ministers will not attend England’s Kiev games.

Ukraine has responded as though it can hardly believe that anyone will really go through with such a boycott. The latest instalment this week is that the legal appeal filed by Dr Tymoshenko will be heard during the football tournament itself.

Which raises the question: Should the EU be involving itself in this affair? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, the possibility that Dr Tymoshenko was involved in shady business dealings, including during her term in office. And even if the EU should involve itself, should football be used as a political lever?

My own judgement is based not just on what I know politically about Ukraine but also my own personal warmth for the country after two visits.

The first, in 1995, took place on the occasion of a Council of Europe conference, around the time when Dr Tymoshenko was entering business, using her Communist Party connections, to become wealthy and a rising star in the political firmament.

The 40-kilometre drive from the airport passed through a beautiful road, extraordinarily wide and bordered by tall chestnut tress whose foliage was an enchanting palette of burned orange, fading yellow and gold. According to my taxi driver, this was designed to double up as a military landing strip.

I was in Kiev to attend a human rights conference but there were many signs that the country was still a fragile environment for such rights to flourish. Inflation was so rampant that ordinary prices were measured in millions.

In the centre of Kiev itself the statue of Lenin had been pulled down and now the focal point was a beautiful fountain. However, Communist architecture was still very present. Commerce was scarcely in evidence and commercial regulation was scarce. It was probably difficult for anyone not to bend the rules when there were so few.

I was to return to Kiev some 10 years later to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Chiara made us proud placing second in the performance of her lifetime.

On both visits I found that generous tipping was part and parcel of everyday expectations. Whether it was to get a decent hotel room (having previously been told the hotel was full), or engineering a visit to the magnificent Santa Sofia Cathedral, built in 1037, after being told it was closed.

In such circumstances, one can assume that the general expectation and practice of tipping was also to be found at the top. The serious issue concerning Dr Tymoshenko is that she appears to have been prosecuted for actions while others, allies of Mr Yanukovych, have not. The charges appear to be simply a ruse against a foe in the political scene. And what a formidable foe she is. Dr Tymoshenko, who is 50 years old, has charisma, a strong personality, political courage and she is beautiful. She wears her blond hair in the traditional fashion. It is her trademark.

It is important to reiterate that Ukraine is a part of Europe. Ukraine is also a neighbour and if the situation descends into disorder, EU borders will be affected. However, it is also impossible to spend an hour in the country’s capital without being struck and bewitched by the country’s European heritage.

One only has to visit the centre for Orthodox Christians in Kiev. Churches, monasteries, chapels and cloisters abound in this enclave in what is the equivalent to the Vatican for Catholic Christians.

There seems to be real injustice in Dr Timoshenko’s case and it affects a country that is of direct concern to the European Union. However, should sport be used for political purposes?

I understand the case made by those who say sport and politics should never be mixed. My reply, however, is that sport and sports events have become so commercialised, so tied to country branding, that when a country is selected to hold a main sport event it scores a political point.

The boycott of a sporting event spells more than a PR disaster. It may also turn out to be a commercial disaster. If it’s the only clout Europe has to save an ailing dissident’s life, then it should be used because there is nothing more important than human rights.

Dr Attard Montalto is a Labour member of the European Parliament.

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