LONDON, United Kingdom — Could soccer succeed where a revolution, diplomacy and an age-old fear of Russia has failed?
That’s the question mark hanging over Ukraine at the moment, where a major sporting tournament may yet prove to be the catalyst needed to remove the country from the clutches of authoritarianism and propel it toward the embrace of Western democracy.
Ukraine has been in the spotlight in recent weeks after claims that Yulia Tymoshenko, an opposition leader jailed last year for corruption, has been abused while in prison. Photos of a bruised Tymoshenko, known for her braided hair, have generated international outrage.
Much of the criticism has been directed towards President Viktor Yanukovych who, according to rights groups, is using his power to eliminate opponents and silence media dissent ahead of October 2012 elections. Some say democracy itself is under threat.
All this appears to be a long way from the Orange Revolution, a season of protests that began in November 2004 when an election win by Yanukovych was annulled amid claims of widespread fraud. When a later “free and fair” vote put his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, in office three months later, many hailed the revolution as a landmark in Ukraine’s emergency from Soviet rule.
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However, by 2010 Yanukovych was back in power after narrowly beating Orange Revolution icon Tymoshenko. And, having allowed Tymoshenko to be put on trial and sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption, he now stands accused of turning the clock back on progress.
Tymoshenko’s 2011 trial and incarceration — on charges that she accepted bribes for a gas deal when she served as energy minister — were widely criticized as politically-motivated by European leaders whose appeals for her release were ignored by the Yanukovych government.
Yet few headline-grabbing diplomatic reprisals followed, until soccer entered the equation.
Beginning June 8, Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland the prestigious Euro 2012 soccer tournament. The four-week event involving teams from across Europe will be watched millions of people around the world. In preparation, Ukraine has spent billions upgrading its infrastructure, gambling on the tournament to showcase its potential for international investment.
But after Tymoshenko, who may also face murder charges, launched a much publicized hunger strike and her supporters circulated photographs allegedly showing rough treatment at the hands of prison guards, European leaders have cast a shadow over the event by threatening to stay away.
The politicization of the sporting event has drawn mixed reactions. Ukrainian authorities, who deny Tymoshenko has been abused, predictably condemned the possible boycott, with one minister likening it to “Cold War methods.” Ukrainian opposition politicians have also expressed concerns.
Russia also waded into the argument. Freshly-reinstalled President Vladimir Putin declared, "One must not in any circumstances mix politics, business and other questions of this sort with sports.”
While the soccer boycotts have generated the most attention, Ukraine has suffered other fallout from the Tymoshenko case.
The country this month was forced to postpone a summit of central European leaders after several pulled out in protest. And last October, the EU delayed an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to European integration, citing concerns over the treatment of Tymoshenko and others. The deal is now on hold until after the October 2012 vote.
With so much at stake in terms of Euro 2012 investment and the potentially lucrative benefits a tie-up to the European Union could bring, Yanukovych appears to be treading a risky path by failing to heed international concerns over Tymoshenko’s treatment.
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According to analysts, one reason he feels secure in pursuing his own agenda is because European countries have long viewed Ukraine as an economic and diplomatic buffer to Russia, particularly in its role as a transit route for Russian gas. This has given him a certain amount of leverage.
But, says Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, by responding to this, Europe is making a mistake.
“Far too often the West buys this pendular threat: ‘If you’re not nice to us, we’ll swing back to Russia,’” he told GlobalPost. “It should not, precisely because it is just a threat and a tactic. This is fear of Russia dominating.”
Ukraine, even under pro-Moscow Yanukovych, is by no means a beneficiary of strong ties to its former Soviet rulers. Although it granted Yanukovych a favorable gas supply deal, Russia has been scarred by previous gas disputes and is seeking to bypass Ukraine as a transit route.
“The real alternative to a ‘Europeanized’ Ukraine is an isolated and increasingly authoritarian Ukraine which would then be more vulnerable to Russian pressure,” said Wilson.
Logically, that should push Yanukovych towards Europe and the measures needed to safeguard association with the European Union. But, says Wilson, the Ukrainian president “isn’t calculating in that kind of way.” Instead, he is focused on the same intense personal rivalries that helped undermine the Orange Revolution.
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So can soccer bring about change?
Not on its own and probably not via boycotts, says Wilson. But by sitting back to see how Ukraine handles itself under the Euro 2012 spotlight and then runs its October elections, the European Union has the perfect opportunity to cast a powerful judgment when it delivers its verdict on association. Likewise, Ukraine has a chance to demonstrate its intentions.
“From an EU point of view I think it’s a good thing that these processes are segued together,” Wilson said. “No one would want to see a temporary hands-off liberalization by authorities then back to normal as soon as the footballers and the international media have left.”