Ukraine hasn't been in the headlines this much in Germany since the Orange Revolution in 2004. But politicians warn that threats to boycott the European soccer championships are counterproductive.
If Yulia Tymoshenko had set herself the goal of informing the German public about her fate, she has probably achieved it. In recent weeks, reports on the hunger strike of the imprisoned former Ukrainian prime minister were top stories in the main news programs of Germany's four leading TV stations ARD, ZDF, RTL and SAT1, Cologne-based media research institute IFEM said.
The last time there was such intensive coverage of Ukraine in Germany was during the Orange Revolution in 2004. There are several reasons for the current "Ukraine wave," says Eckart Stratenschulte, Director of the European Academy in Berlin. Firstly, Tymoshenko has pursued "clever public relations." Another reason is the upcoming UEFA Euro 2012 soccer championships, which will be held in Ukraine and Poland in June.
Politicians such as Viola von Cramon of Germany's Green Party believe that above all, Tymoshenko's daughter Yevhenia has contributed to putting spotlight on the fate of her mother. Von Cramon, who travels regularly to Ukraine to monitor the situation in the country, says the current debate on Tymoshenko and the state of democracy in Ukraine shortly before Euro 2012 is essential. "I'm worried about how quickly things have developed in Ukraine since President Yanukovych took office," she said.
No to a sports boycott
The word "boycott" can be heard very often in the debate on the European football championship in Ukraine. Cologne-based Eastern Europe expert Gerhard Simon finds the term misleading, and opposes a sports boycott. "If [using the term] means registering a strong protest with the political leadership in Kyiv, then it is right," he said.
Simon says he would welcome it if European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, did not allow their picture to be taken in the stadium with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. For months, Yanukovych has faced accusations in Western Europe that he has weakened democracy and the rule of law.
Politicians also oppose a sports boycott of the tournament in Ukraine. "A boycott of the European championship or a relocation of games would not, in my opinion, have the political impact that some hope," says Philip Missfelder, a Christian Democrat member of parliament. He says he doubts that such a step would lead to Tymoshenko's release.
Criticism of Merkel's comparison to a dictatorship
"All politicians have to decide for themselves whether they will go to the European championships," Missfelder said. He had decided against it himself and thinks it would be appropriate if German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not visit Ukraine during Euro 2012. Social Democratic parliamentarian Gernot Erler is not going to the championship - for scheduling reasons, he says. Erler agrees with Merkel's decision to wait until the last minute before deciding whether to go. "If she leaves it open, the pressure will be maintained, and there may yet be positive signals from Kyiv," he said.
But so far there have been no such signals. And Merkel is stepping up the pressure on Ukraine. In a recent policy statement, she mentioned the country in the same breath as Belarus. In both countries people were suffering under "dictatorship and repression," she said.
Observers like Simon say this comparison is exaggerated: "Ukraine is not Belarus." Stratenschulte agrees: "I think it is certainly not correct to equate the two countries." Erler, too, thinks the chancellor's comparison to a dictatorship was wrong. "I think that went beyond the mark," he said. There is indeed repression in Ukraine, Erler said, but the situation is not as dramatic as in Belarus.
However, Stratenschulte believes that Ukraine is now increasingly developing in the direction of Belarus. This includes, for example, the persecution of the political opposition, as in the Tymoshenko case, and "growing threats against the mass media." Employees of the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN recently protested against the sudden dismissal of their editor-in-chief and spoke of "censorship."
Different standards for Ukraine
Both experts and politicians complain that the discussion about Ukraine in recent weeks has not always been balanced. "Certainly this was sometimes exaggerated," von Cramon said. This had had to do with the fact that the Ukrainian leadership had barely acknowledged German criticism.
Stratenschulte finds that the government in Berlin risks being accused of "hypocrisy" if its choice of words toward Ukraine is excessively harsh. "Its criticism of the People's Republic of China, for example, is much more moderate compared to other countries," he says. This can be explained by the great economic importance of China to Germany, he said.
Simon added that the German government criticized Russia less than Ukraine. But between the two countries, there is one important difference: "Unlike Russia, Ukraine wants to join the European Union," he said. For Kyiv, therefore, other democratic standards would apply than for Moscow.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / sgb
Editor: Ben Knight