Are European calls for Euro 2012 boycott meaningless?

The recent mistreatment of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has caused European leaders to call for a boycott of Euro-2012. This is all very well, but the championship will go ahead and President Yanukovych isn’t bothered by empty threats. He would be if they were backed up by deeds, says Valery Kalnysh 

Europe and the USA have fired a warning shot over the bows of Ukraine and Viktor Yanukovych. Germany was the first: President Joachim Gauk refused the invitation to come to Ukraine for the 11/12 May meeting of presidents of Central European countries. The German Embassy in Ukraine confirmed that the Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, will not attend either. ‘No one will come,’ was the statement. After that, refusals started flooding in one after the other: Presidents Heinz Fischer (Austria), Vaclav Klaus (Czech Republic), Danilo Turk (Slovenia), and then Jose Manuel Barroso (Chairman of the European Commission).

This was the reaction of the Western world to information about the beating of Yuliya Tymoshenko, one of the Ukrainian opposition leaders, by prison staff at the Kachanivka penal colony. She is serving a 7-year sentence there for abuse of power relating to 2009, when she signed gas contracts with Russia. The European Union representatives have not only refused to come to Ukraine, but called for a boycott of the European Football Championship due to start in Ukraine and Poland on 8 June.  

‘Western leaders’ statements have had no resonance inside Ukraine: very people know about them for the simple, banal even, reason that they were made at the time Ukrainians had gone on a 6-day holiday’

The incident which has so incensed them all took place on 20 April. According to Tymoshenko, prison staff proposed that she should be moved to the Central Hospital for treatment.  She refused. The story is taken up by the ex-prime minister’s defence lawyer, Sergei Vlasenko. ‘At about 9pm on Friday Major Kovalenko, the first deputy prison governor, went into Tymoshenko’s cell, accompanied by a member of the prison staff, Paramei, and another man she didn’t know. Kovalenko told her to get ready to leave.  She said that this matter had already been discussed and decided, but he told her that either she went of her own accord or she would be taken by force. They then covered her with a blanket and started pummelling her with their fists. She screamed very loudly. Yuliya Vladimirovna told me that the man hitting her was Kovalenko, deputy prison governor.  She has a haematoma the size of a (big) man’s fist.’ 

Tymoshenko was actually taken to hospital, but was back the next day as she had refused treatment. Her supporters and the press only found about all this on the Tuesday [24 April] when her lawyer was allowed to see her. The ex-prime minister’s associates are sure that the lawyer wasn’t allowed to see her earlier chiefly to give the bruises time to disappear. Then there would have been no proof, whatever she might have said.

After a few days, however, anyone who wanted to could see the blows and bruises on Tymoshenko’s body. Nina Karpachova, Verkhovna Rada [parliament] human rights ombudsman for Ukraine, is by law entitled to visit prisons without let or hindrance. She took several photographs of Yuliya Tymoshenko, showing the bruises. The photographs got into the internet and the information provoked expressions of outrage in the EU and USA. 

The first to comment on the inadmissibility of such behaviour was the US Ambassador to Ukraine, John Tefft, followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The White House statement of 1 May reads ‘The United States is deeply concerned by the treatment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other imprisoned members of her former government. The photographs of Mrs. Tymoshenko released by the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman further call into question the conditions of her confinement. We urge the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that Mrs. Tymoshenko receives immediate medical assistance in an appropriate facility and request that the U.S. Ambassador be given access to her. We continue to call for her release, the release of other members of her former government and the restoration of their full civil and political rights.’  The other members of her government are Yury Lutsenko, former Interior Minister, who has problems with his liver and possible hepatitis, and the former Defence Minister Valery Ivashchenko, who is suffering from a slipped disc, chronic bronchitis and thyroid problems. Doctors in the German hospital Charité have established that Yuliya Tymoshenko herself is suffering from a chronic slipped disc.

The situation seems clear – the whole of the Western world has risen up in defence of the Ukrainian opposition, currently in prison and treated like dirt by the authorities: denied normal living conditions, and tortured. Western politicians, led by Angela Merkel, are calling for a boycott of Euro-2012.  In so doing, they are putting the Viktor Yanukovych regime on a par with that of Leonid Brezhnev (the boycott of the XXII Olympic Games in Moscow resulting from the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops).

However, this analogy accords too much honour to Yanukovych, who comes nowhere near the status of this world leader. They were at least responding to publicly-aired grievances. The Ukrainian leader does the opposite – he is silent, or rather takes refuge in silence.  Others speak, though. Volodymyr Lytvyn, Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, for instance. Not long before Jose Manuel Barroso and all the European commissioners announced they would not be attending Euro-2012, Mr Lytvyn said ‘Euro-2012 will take place. The high-ranking guests may not be coming to Ukraine, which is not good, but the championship will go ahead because UEFA has stated that it does not engage in politics.’

Western leaders’ statements have had no resonance inside Ukraine: very people know about them for the simple, banal even, reason that all the statements were made at the time all Ukrainians had gone on a 6-day holiday for 1 May, formerly the Day of Worker Solidarity, now Labour Day. Name changes have made no essential difference to the holiday – some people go to the country and others to their summer cottages to plant potatoes, but the uniting factor is a total lack of interest in anything happening around them or the news. This is why Yanukovych was unwilling to comment on the Western leaders’ statements – why should he?  Better to keep quiet as if nothing had happened and hope it will all go away.

‘Statements such as those made by Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton are political, but they are only words, unless they are backed up by force, pressure, breaking contracts, isolation, refusal of entry visas and freezing officials’ bank accounts.’

On the other hand, Yanukovych observes all the ceremonial niceties. Ukrainian law does not allow him to influence the Prosecutor General, only to appeal to him. This he did. The Presidential Administration was at pains to stress that Yanukovych had, within the limits of his power, charged [Prosecutor General] Viktor Pshonka to investigate the conditions of Tymoshenko’s confinement. And that’s all.

There is, however, one other reason why Yanukovych is keeping his mouth shut and it is probably the most significant one. He knows that matters will go no further than statements by Merkel (whose visit, according to her Press Secretary, will depend on Tymoshenko’s fate, and respect for human rights in Ukraine), and the leader of the German Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel (who called on Western politicians not to go to the championship, so as to avoid having to sit in the stadium next to prison directors and members of the secret services). 

The worst case scenario is that Merkel and Gabriel don’t come…but the championship will still go ahead for the very good reason that it is being held in both Ukraine and Poland, so any call for a boycott of Euro-2012 will also impact on Warsaw. ‘I really don’t like the mixing of sport and politics,’ commented the former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski.  ‘I think Ukraine and Poland should be given the chance to organise a good championship, a feast of sport to bring joy to both sportsmen and their fans.’ To put it bluntly, Yanukovych is keeping quiet because he knows the Europeans will not go as far as a massive boycott. That would offend Poland, just as much a member of the EU as they are themselves.

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.’  

It should also be remembered that Yuliya Tymoshenko and Angela Merkel know each other quite well and the ex-prime minister managed to forge quite strong relationships with European politicians, especially the European People’s Party, the biggest party in the Council of Europe, the European Commission and the European Parliament. These contacts are now very useful.  But whether they will help Tymoshenko to achieve the desired effect and get out of prison is quite another matter.  Unlikely, on the face of it.

There is one undeniable point consistently made by the Ukraine Foreign Ministry and Viktor Yanukovych: EU demands for the release of former members of Tymoshenko’s cabinet constitute, they maintain, interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine and the politics of a country where an independent court, free of outside coercion and pressure,  takes its own decisions. By casting doubt on the legitimacy of Ukrainian court decisions, the legitimacy of the country itself is questioned.  

Statements such as those made by Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton are political, but they are only words, unless they are backed up by force, pressure, breaking contracts, isolation, refusal of entry visas and freezing officials’ bank accounts. Neither the EU or USA has done anything which would make Viktor Yanukovych change his attitude to the Tymoshenko case or decide to release her. It is worth pointing out that the Ukrainian president does not understand hints. The language of diplomacy is completely alien to him: the constant half-hints, the significance of whose implementation he has to work out for himself.  It’s all too complicated for him. The EU and USA appeals will remain just that, appeals, heard only by those making them. That method doesn’t work for Viktor Yanukovych.

Others, including some of Viktor Yanukovych’s cronies, do pay attention to these hints. This is particularly true of businessmen from his close circle who want to take the European way and do business with the EU, where the rules are predictable, rather than with Russia, where what matters is how close you are to the authorities. The EU can start working towards its goal through them, but one should not forget that Europe is a long way away, whereas Viktor Yanukovych is not and the secret services, inspection agencies and the tax inspectorate are under his control, not Europe’s.  Attempting to work through local oligarchs for Tymoshenko’s release would be too trivial an objective, cynical though that may appear. This is a card that can only be played once, more probably at the time of next presidential election, when Europe decides to get into the game and support a rival to Viktor Yanukovych. Behind the scenes, of course. But that’s another story.