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Analysis & Opinion
02.05.12 Blowback From Europe
By Andrew Roth

Europe’s frustration with Ukraine’s jailing of the former prime minister is once again spilling over into a diplomatic row. Over the last week a series of European states have begged out of an important Yalta summit set for late May, and talks of a political boycott of the Euro 2012 championships, which are co-hosted by Ukraine this year, have the Ukrainians talking of Europe reviving “Cold War tactics.” Yet Europe’s bag of tricks to punish Ukraine is running low, and for now the Ukrainian government seems to value keeping Yulia Tymoshenko in prison above mollifying Europe.

When Europe sits down in Yalta in Crimea next month for a summit of Central European states, Joachim Gauck, the president of the regional powerhouse, Germany, won’t be there. Nor will the presidents of the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria and Slovenia. The Baltics might also reconsider coming. The reason? A series of photographs released recently, showing a bruised Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s fiery ex-premier who is now serving a seven-year prison sentence she claims is retribution from her political rivals. The bruises were from a beating she endured at the hands of her prison guards, she said.

Europe has been putting pressure on Ukraine to release Tymoshenko since she was sentenced for abusing the office of the premier last October in signing a contentious 2009 gas deal with Russia. Mostly, that pressure has been in the form of a quid pro quo: progress on an Association Agreement is contingent on Ukraine releasing the jailed ex-premier. Yet that pressure has produced little progress – Ukraine slapped Tymoshenko with tax evasion charges and has refused requests for outside care for what she says is a debilitating back pain.

Now the European Union and European governments are increasingly shunning Ukraine. As governments announced they would not attend the summit, Der Spiegel reported that German Prime Minister Angela Merkel called on her ministers to boycott soccer matches held in Ukraine during the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2012), which is co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland this year. Others in the German government are following her lead: Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he would boycott a match between Germany and the Netherlands held in Kharkov if he was not granted access to Tymoshenko.

Ukraine has responded by saying that Germany was attempting to revive Cold War tactics reminiscent of Olympic boycotts. “I would not want to think that Germany’s government actors are capable of reanimating the methods from the times of the Cold War and trying to make sport a hostage of politics,” said Oleg Voloshin, the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s Information Department.

For Ukraine, Euro 2012 is the largest PR event of the year – Ukraine and Poland together have invested tens of billions of euro to update everything from their travel infrastructure to the stadiums for the games. Using the games as a platform to stage a protest, the German government is seeking to amplify its message on human rights after repeated failed attempts, said Jana Kobzova, an expert on Ukraine at the European Council on Foreign Affairs. “There is a sense of frustration. No one really knows what to do with Ukraine,” said Kobzova. “Because of the situation with Tymoshenko, the Europeans are trying to send a message that this is not the country that the EU wants to be associated with.”

So far, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has shown that he is willing to prioritize keeping Tymoshenko in prison despite the lucrative benefits that an Association Agreement with the EU could bring to the country. One factor in that decision are the October parliamentary elections, which will make it unlikely that Tymoshenko would be released at a possibly volatile political moment. “I believe that their thinking is that releasing Tymoshenko would be dangerous, although I think that the logic behind it is flawed,” said Kobzova. “It seems unlikely that she would be released before the elections.”

In Ukraine, Tymoshenko has shown few signs of slowing her press onslaught. Besides the release of the photos showing her bruises, she has been holding a hunger strike since last Friday and has harped on poor prison conditions to the press. Germany has been particularly critical of Ukraine over the Tymoshenko case, in part due to an impassioned plea from Tymoshenko’s daughter in local German press. "The fate of my mother and that of my country are now one and the same thing: if she dies, democracy dies with her,” Eugenia Tymoshenko told German press in an appeal to the country’s leadership, the Guardian reported. “Save my mother’s life before it’s too late.”
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