Politics and sport - Ukraine UEFA 2012

Now as you know, generally I stay away from the “headlining MSM” media news about Ukraine.  Occasionally I don’t use the news as a springboard at all, particularly when I feel like a meander through policy, effective, ineffective or counterproductive thereof, negotiations and diplomacy, positions, needs and interests, interests verses values and all that terribly clever stuff that makes the world of policy and international relationships go around - mostly in shades of nuanced grey rather than black and white I would add.

However, now seems like a good time to ponder recent mutterings over Ukraine, Euro 2012 and political leaders thoughts as the tournament comes ever closer with Ms Tymoshenko (and others) languishing in jails after what is perceived by many as politically motivated prosecutions.

Of course, sport and politics have collided on numerous occasions in the past.  The World Cup in Argentina went ahead despite the Argentinian Junta politically persecuting and torturing large numbers of Argentinians at the time.  A full political and diplomatic turnout was present during that sports fest regardless of those activities.

In contrast to that we have the Beijing Olympics only a few years ago where only 9 EU political leaders attended the opening ceremony in protest over the Chinese human rights record.

Then there are instances that can be cited such as apartheid South Africa and tours such as Kerry Packer’s England cricket tour that went ahead despite the political opposition to it.

Consistency?  Of course not.

Will there be consistency amongst the EU national leadership over Ukraine next month?  Again highly unlikely with Poland already going on record that political leaderships staying away from Ukraine is the wrong thing to do.

It is the age old problematic question of whether you seek to remain engaged and try to influence matters from within or take a stance that will leave you outside and shouting over the fence to a neighbour who is hard of hearing.  Can any EU leader afford to miss the opportunity to crucify the current government when they will have free access to the Ukrainian media and society live on Ukrainian soil?

There is then not only the matter of foreign policy but domestic policy for those leaders who choose to stay away.  How does it look to the increasingly nationalistic voters who are rapidly tiring of almost all things “EU”, when their leadership will not be present when their national teams are playing in a major tournament?

For the European Commission who are not elected by the EU voters, they have no domestic nationalist backlash to concern themselves with.  For the sovereign nations who are seeing a rapid rise of right-wing nationalistic drum thumping, failure to be there to support their nation who have been through a difficult qualification process to reach these finals, may not sit so well with their voting public.

After all, to them Yulia Tymoshenko is just another corrupt politician from Ukraine, an impression consistently enforced by the media that states all politicians are corrupt in Ukraine.  Thus possibly not enough to justify snubbing their own national team in the tournament for some domestic voters.

On the subject of the European Commission,  it seems the western press are using only the most useful parts of press statements to sell copy.  Take for instance the absence of EU Justice Commissioner Reding from the tournament despite the UEFA (not Ukrainian) invitation to be there.  It is being reported that she is not there due to political reasons.  Not entirely true.

Her press department made the statement “She is not going.  First of all her agenda does not permit this.  But also she is quite concerned about the situation in Ukraine and in particular by the situation with Yulia Tymoshenko.”   EU Observer 30.04.12

Now I would like to think that as the European Commissioner for Justice, even if her agenda did permit her attendance, as she doesn’t answer to any domestic voters to hold and retain her position, she would, could and should make her decision based on the values she is supposed to represent.   Unfortunately we will never know as her agenda doesn’t allow it anyway (even though that bit seems to be missing from almost all MSM reporting on her absence).

Mr Barroso has also stated he will not come to Ukraine “unless there is a swift improvement in human rights there.”   Anybody who is even remotely aware of “diplo speak” will recognise this statement is notable not for what it says, but for what it does not.  A swift improvement in human rights does not necessarily translate to the release of Ms Tymoshenko.

A “swift improvement” could very well be the sending of Ms Tymoshenko to Germany for treatment a few days before the tournament is due to begin.  That would allow Mr Barroso to enjoy yet another free jolly of VIP treatment and delay having to deal with the uncomfortable issues relating to what happens to Ms Tymoshenko once she has been treated in Germany.

Upon her return to Ukraine she would return to jail to continue to serve her sentence one must presume as things currently stand.  She would also have to face her trial over the shenanigans of UESU and Somolli Ent which has been postponed by the Ukrainian courts due to her health.

There is then the matter of Chancellor Merkel who has yet to make a formal decision to attend or not.  She will be acutely aware that whilst a percentage of Germans would support her staying away if that was her decision, there would also be a large number who would not be happy that a German Chancellor is not present at a tournament which Germany not only qualified for, but also stands a very good chance of winning - with the final in Kyiv.

She faces reelection next year.  Unsurprisingly she has not made that decision yet.

To add more difficulty to her position, Vitali Klitchko, Ukrainian opposition politician and Heavyweight Boxing Champion whose sporting career is based in Germany and who thus has a massive German following, had this to say about sports, politics and boycotting Ukraine:

“Europe and (Ukraine’s) neighbouring countries have enormous influence on Ukraine both economically and politically.  The important thing is that the whole country is not punished through penalties and sanctions that also effect the people.  The pressure needs to be directed against the country’s leadership.  Each person at the country’s helm has a personal responsibility for what is currently happening in Ukraine.  They must be held accountable.

The German team would be proud if it knew the Chancellor was in the stadium.  Another question is whether the visit would be an official one and if Merkel would attend as a representative of her country.  A private visit would be unproblematic.

This tournament is the biggest sporting event in the history of Ukraine.  It has to happen.   It is even an excellent opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the maladministration in our country.

Democratic changes are primarily dependent on the people at the highest levels of government.  Throughout the years, our politicians have spoken about the democratisation of our country, but in their heart of hearts they don’t want it at all. “  Der Spiegel  28.04.12

Suffice to say, Vitali Klitchko falls into the Polish camp of boycotts being counterproductive.   It should be worthy of note, that at the time of writing this, Klitchko and his party have thus far not joined the United Opposition when it comes to a single party list of candidates for the October elections.  One suspects his reasons for that are founded in the very last sentence of the above Der Spiegel quote which is all encompassing rather than party specific.

In case you are wondering, the current position taken by Ms Tymosehnko herself over the matter, is that there should not be a boycott because of her, and that the Ukrainian people should see the EU leaders in Ukraine as it will encourage them to look to the EU rather than think they have been written off.  In this she has a very good point when we consider the EU EaP policy is now to engage with Ukrainian society rather than Ukrainian politicians.

Anyway, it remains to be seen who will boycott the Ukrainian side of the Euro 2012 tournament and who won’t.  Aside from Ms Reding, who is too busy anyway, there doesn’t seem to be any other absolute confirmations of personalities who count and are recognisable to the Ukrainian public at the time of writing.  That may well change of course over the coming weeks.

If it does change, do not expect the Ukrainian position to change drastically because of it.  The very best that could be hoped for is that Ms Tymoshenko is sent to Germany for treatment immediately prior to the tournament.  The question is, would she then go, as effectively she would be in exile during the tournament with a cell awaiting her return.

To be honest I am not even sure the Ukrainian side will cede that much ground as currently there is no legal way to allow for prisoners to receive treatment in a foreign nation as far as I can tell.

The question for the EU nations is then whether the diplomatic pleasantries will continue or not.  Empirical global historical evidence would indicate that the current situation in Ukraine (and with regards to Ms Tymoshenko) are not sufficient to end such niceties for most nations.  For the most part such things are stretched far past the point where most people would ever allow matters to go in their lives, simply because international issues are here one day and gone the next.  There is an overarching desire to keep such relations going far more often than not, despite immediate circumstances.

If the EU national leaders are now going to put human rights as the qualifier to their attendance at major international sporting events as the “norm”, then it will be interesting to see what happens with the Winter Olympics in Russia (with very similar issues of alleged political persecution) and the Summer Olympics in Brazil within the next 4 years, (with human rights abuses relating to Brazilian street children arguably dwarfing the human rights issues in Ukraine and Russia).

When politics and sport collide the results are always interesting.  Let’s see how this unfolds.