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