Boycott of Ukraine during Euro 2012 carries risks

It’s an ethical dilemma that has Western leaders in a bind: to

boycott or not to boycott Ukraine-hosted matches in the European

soccer championship over the alleged abuse of jailed opposition

leader Yulia Tymoshenko?

When Tymoshenko launched a hunger strike last month after saying

she was beaten by prison officials, several European leaders vowed

to boycott Ukraine during Euro 2012 in protest, with even German

Chancellor Angela Merkel threatening to stay away.

But many warn that to shun Ukraine could do more harm than

good.

Leaders, sports officials and even some rights activists argue

that using Europe’s most prestigious sporting event to punish

Ukraine is hardly likely to win Tymoshenko’s release. On the other

hand, it could alienate Ukraine further from the West, demoralize

its people and create a troubling sporting precedent.

For instance, will countries now shunning Ukraine, which

co-hosts the tournament with Poland, also be willing to take a hard

line against economic giant Russia when it hosts the Sochi winter

Olympics in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018? Russia, after all, also

has political prisoners and a spotty human rights record.

The United States led a boycott of about 50 countries against

the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of

Afghanistan – and that was widely seen as a flop that made no

difference to the conflict.

It’s no surprise that Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who returned to

the presidency this week, says Tymoshenko’s case and Euro 2012

should be kept separate.

”One must not in any circumstances mix politics, business and

other questions of this sort with sports,” Putin said last

week.

A leading Polish analyst, Marcin Zaborowski, argues that talk of

boycotting Ukraine ”opens up a broader question about whether

international sports events should just be for democratic

nations.”

”If you do that, then you remove an important element in

international relations,” said Zaborowski, director of the Polish

Institute of International Affairs. He argued that major sporting

events – including soccer matches between political foes like

Turkey and Armenia, and the U.S. and Iran – have helped ease

tensions by giving politicians, athletes and fans a chance to

interact in a nonpolitical space.

Sports can also be a morale booster for people living in

oppressive systems, Zaborowski said. During the Cold War, for

instance, participation in Olympic games and other international

competitions lifted the spirits and pride of Eastern Europeans by

giving them a stage on which their athletes could excel.

Should regular Ukrainians, who are already struggling with

poverty and corruption, also have their party ruined due to this

political controversy?

These issues are sparking a great deal of debate in co-host

Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor to the West. The tournament opens June 8

in Warsaw with a Poland-Greece match and ends in Kiev on July 1,

with matches in between in four Polish and four Ukrainian

cities.

Poland’s leading opposition leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head

of the right-wing Law and Justice party, is joining some Western

Europeans in calling for Poland to boycott Ukraine, arguing that

Tymoshenko’s imprisonment is a clear attempt by President Viktor

Yanukovych and his allies ”to eliminate the opposition leader from

public life.”

”Such a situation cannot be tolerated” by the EU, Kaczynski

said.

But Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Bronislaw

Komorowski, while also critical of how Ukraine is dealing with

Tymoshenko, strongly oppose a boycott.

Warsaw, of course, can hardly act against its co-host in the

tournament, which is seen as a chance for the two ex-communist

states to prove themselves as efficient and modern. A failure for

Ukraine would be a failure for Poland, too.

But the stance by Poland, an EU member, is also firmly in line

with a long-term strategy of promoting democratic change on its

eastern border by engaging Kiev. Warsaw fears that a punishing

approach could push Ukraine closer to Russia.

Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison sentence on charges of

abuse of office while negotiating a natural gas contract with

Russian in 2009. The former Orange Revolution leader charges that

Yanukovych, her arch-foe, orchestrated her jailing to get her out

of the way during October parliamentary elections. Western leaders

also have strongly condemned the case as politically motivated and

have been increasing their pressure on Kiev since she began her

hunger strike.

Though sports should, many argue, be a space free of politics,

there is a long history of politicians using it as a tool – most

dramatically with threats to boycott Olympic games.

Experts say these have never really done much to change the

situation on the ground, though athletes have found their dreams of

competing slashed after years of training.

The boycott of the Moscow games, spearheaded by President Jimmy

Carter, caused bitterness that lingered for years.

”What did it help in 1980 that the U.S. didn’t compete? The

Soviets still stayed in Afghanistan,” said Bill Mallon, a past

president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic

Historians. ”I don’t think boycotts are ever really helpful. All

they ever do is deny athletes the chance to compete.”

In 1978, the Netherlands led calls to boycott the World Cup in

Argentina to protest a military dictatorship and its human rights

violations. But the boycott didn’t happen.

To be sure, nobody now is talking about keeping national teams

from competing in this summer’s championship. But EU President

Hermann Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel

Barroso and the governments of Austria and Belgium say they will

stay away. Merkel vows to do the same if treatment of Tymoshenko

doesn’t improve.

While many fans probably don’t care if one politician more or

less is sitting in the stands, all the talk of a boycott is already

embarrassing Ukrainian leaders.

”We found the resources, built the stadiums, the airports,

bridges, roads, interchanges, renovated hospitals and now they are

telling us: boycott Euro,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov

said Monday. ”Is that normal? How should we feel about this? Who

do they want to humiliate? They want to humiliate our entire

people, our country.”

UEFA, the European football association that is organizing the

event, not surprisingly also opposes a boycott of Ukraine. Michel

Platini, the president, sent a letter in March to a human rights

group and the parliaments of the EU, Sweden and Germany

acknowledging Kiev’s problems but arguing that the matches and

other activities planned on the sidelines could help Ukrainian

society.

Platini wrote that when UEFA decided to stage Euro 2012 in two

ex-communist countries, its goal was to open up to a part of Europe

that had never hosted a championship.

”This desire to broaden our horizons is without doubt a

double-edged sword,” Platini wrote. ”But it does have the virtue

of opening up nations and favoring exchanges.”

Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Maria Danilova

in Kiev contributed to this report.