In Kiev, a protest camp outside Euro 2012 fan zone
If soccer fans aren’t seeing enough action on the field in the
European Championships, they can get a dose of rough-and-tumble
Ukrainian politics near the fan zone in Kiev.
Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime
minister and the country’s top opposition figure, have gathered in
a protest camp next to a special area where fans mingle, drinking
beer and watching matches on giant screens. On display at the camp
is an effigy of a judge, a pile of mock human waste and a plastic
pig with the president’s face.
The championships already are being boycotted by Western leaders
to protest Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. And the protesters hope their
eye-catching camp will further raise pressure on President Viktor
Yanukovych to release her.
”We are showing what our government is really like,” said Ivan
Shibko, a top activist at the Tymoshenko camp. ”They are doing
this to keep opposition leaders in jail during elections.”
Tymoshenko’s seven-year jail sentence in October over abuse of
office charges drew a storm of anger and condemnation from the
West. The United States and the European Union called the verdict
politically motivated and several Western leaders canceled plans to
attend Euro 2012 matches played in Ukraine. The EU also put on hold
a key cooperation agreement with Kiev over Tymoshenko.
The charismatic, blond-braided Tymoshenko says Yanukovych, who
narrowly defeated her in the 2010 presidential election, threw her
in jail to bar her from the October parliamentary vote. Tymoshenko,
51, spearheaded the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests that
annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted presidential victory. But he
returned to power, capitalizing on slow reforms and constant
bickering in the Orange camp.
Yanukovych has defied Western pressure to release Tymoshenko and
even linked her to a murder case 16 years ago in an interview this
week, further diminishing her chances of getting out of jail any
time soon. Yanukovych also insists that the boycott by European
leaders will have no effect on the championship’s success.
Parliament members from Tymoshenko’s party said they would be
watching football matches from sport bars, rather than from
gleaming new stadiums alongside top government officials, in
protest of her jailing. And while they will be rooting for Ukraine,
Tymoshenko’s supporters also plan to ”enlighten” foreign fans on
the true face of Ukraine’s leaders.
The work is already under way at the protest camp set up nearly
a year ago outside the central Kiev court house where Tymoshenko
was tried and sentenced.
On a hot afternoon this week, supporters wore white T-shirts
reading ”Free Yulia” on the front and ”Football fest in prison”
on the back. They handed out brochures and posters and gave foreign
fans guided tours of the camp, where the mock human waste
represents Yanukovych’s party and the hanging effigy the judge who
sentenced Tymoshenko. The opposition leader herself was shown as a
white dove locked in a cage. An English translator was on duty to
assist the fans.
”It seems very confusing: Why is she in jail? Nobody knows,”
said Swedish fan Hakan Kronander, wearing his team’s bright yellow
T-shirt, as he strolled through the tent camp. ”They (EU) should
put pressure on Ukraine to do something about this.”
Dressed in the fake chain armor of a medieval knight despite 25
Celsius (77 Farenheit) heat, English fan Stan Stanfield climbed on
top of the Yanukovych-faced pig and posed for a face-in-hole
photograph, pretending to be a boxer punching the Ukrainian
president in the face.
”It’s disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” Stanfield said.
”She’s been locked up, she’s a victim of a corrupt society.”
Stanfield is captain of a team of English fans that will be
playing against Ukrainian fans next week. His side will be wearing
”Free Yulia” T-shirts.
”We will help in any way we can by joining the cause and the
fight for Yulia,” Stanfield said.
But despite the giant Tymoshenko posters, catchy banners and
scores of national yellow-and-blue flags, the tent camp seemed
drowned out by the soccer fan zone and the general festive mood of
the football championship. Some fans stopped at the camp, while
many others went through it without paying much attention. Earlier
this week, an attempt by Tymoshenko supporters to stage a rally
outside the Olympic stadium where the England team was playing
France, was blocked by riot police.
Two top EU envoys were in Kiev this week on a mission to monitor
the legal proceedings in the Tymoshenko case, hoping to pile
pressure on Yanukovych ahead of an appeals hearing at the end of
But experts predict she will remain in jail – despite opposition
efforts to highlight the Tymoshenko case to the West and to
”There will be T-shirts, there will be rallies in the fan zone,
some statements from EU officials,” said Vadym Karasyov, a
Kiev-based political analyst with ties to the government. ”But
nothing will change radically: Yanukovych will not let her out of
prison before elections. You don’t have to be a political scientist
to see that.”