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Opinion: Hunger strike casts shadow over Euro 2012

EU-Ukraine ties are being sorely tested by Kyiv’s treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned reform movement icon. It also casts a shadow on the Euro 2012, which kicks off in June, says DW's Bernd Johann.

The soccer European Championship is meant to be a grand sports event and Ukraine was hoping to present itself as the perfect host this year. But the country's image is being tarnished by the hunger strike of former Prime Minister and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko, who is jailed in Kharkiv which happens to be one of the four Ukrainian venues for Euro 2012. The German national team is also scheduled to play there. With little over a month to go before the opening match, the conflict between the European Union and Ukraine is escalating.

Treaties frozen with EU

Over the past years it appeared Ukraine had successfully forged close economic and political ties with the EU. An association agreement coupled with a comprehensive free trade agreement is on the table. Some Ukrainian politicians even called for EU membership.

But the optimism has long since evaporated. Only last year the EU froze its contracts with Ukraine and now even sanctions appear possible.

Settling the score with political opponents

The EU is doing the right thing by distancing itself from Ukraine. The government of President Victor Yanukovych is establishing an authoritarian regime under the very eyes of its European partners. Members of the former Tymoshenko government are prosecuted in highly questionable proceedings resembling show trials. So far there have been nine verdicts and trials of former ministers. This ruthless course of action against the old government speaks a clear language: it's about settling old scores with political opponents and ensuring that important opposition figures are barred from the parliamentary elections planned for the coming October.

Politicians from Germany and other EU countries say Ukraine's justice system is very selective and politically motivated. This is partly owed to the fact that followers of President Yanukovych and his Regions Party meanwhile control large parts of the Ukrainian legislature as well as other important state institutions. The fact that any criticism directed at the government over the past few months was simply ignored also weighs heavily from the political angle. It would appear that President Yanukovych and his government are not prepared to discuss any EU appeals or recommendations.

Act of desperation

The stubbornness of Ukraine's leadership appears to have driven Yulia Tymoshenko to take a desperate measure. With her hunger strike she is protesting against the violence she suffered at the hands of prison personnel, according to her lawyer. The daughter says her mother's life is in danger.

Tymoshenko has already spent nine months behind bars in her Kharkiv prison. She was sentenced to seven years for abuse of office. Meanwhile a new trial against her has started, despite protests from the EU and Germany. German doctors who examined Tymoshenko say she may be altogether too sick for prison. It would appear that the main objective is to break her, at all costs. Accusations of "torture" are already circulating in the German media.

Good choice for Euro 2012?

Can cheerful soccer festivities take place against such a backdrop in Ukraine? Politicians from EU states will probably think twice about going to Ukraine where they may be expected to shake hands with the president. European soccer associations should also do some soul-searching as to whether Ukraine is a suitable venue. Nobody expects sports to solve any political problems. But it can help throw the spotlight on authoritarian structures.

Ukraine's politicians are about to gamble away the political perspectives of their country. They're also spoiling any fun we might have had in the Euro 2012.

Author: Bernd Johann / nk
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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