Ukraine's Image Takes A Beating As Euro Football Nears

KIEV, Ukraine -- It was never meant to be like this. When Ukraine was named co-host of Europe's biggest football feast in 2009, its leaders hailed the award as a milestone on the road to joining the European mainstream.


A delighted Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister, told her compatriots her government had scraped together "every kopeck" to make the dream possible.

Her jubilant tone foresaw the former Soviet republic turning a confident, smiling face to the world in the month-long Euro-2012 soccer tournament which it will co-host with Poland, its cheer-leader in Europe.

That was in December 2009.

Now, with the first games to be played in Ukraine on June 9, Tymoshenko lies in prison on hunger strike, nursing bruises after what she said was a beating by prison guards.

Images of her show her trademark peasant braids lying in a forlorn tress across her shoulder.

Western leaders, some of whose national teams will compete in Euro-2012, have reacted with horror.

Led by Germany, leaders of several European Union countries have called off scheduled visits to Ukraine in protest at the treatment meted out by President Viktor Yanukovich's leadership.

Amid talk of a possible boycott of the June 8 ceremonial opening by European politicians, Ukraine has accused of European powers of resorting to Cold War tactics.

A series of mystery bomb blasts in the city of Dnipropetrovsk last week which injured 30 people have raised security concerns.

The government says they were organised by forces out to destabilise the nation.

Identikits of suspects have been issued but there have been no arrests.

The opposition has hinted darkly that the bombs could be the work of authorities and law enforcement bodies with the aim of diverting attention from the Tymoshenko affair.

The trial and sentencing of Tymoshenko to seven years in jail for alleged abuse of power has already cost Ukraine a landmark political agreement with the European Union.

Its signing has been put on indefinite hold.

It has even put Yanukovich off-side with his country's big neighbour and former Soviet master, Russia.

President Dmitry Medvedev just last week said: "The persecution of political opponents (in Ukraine) is absolutely unacceptable."

Some believe Yanukovich, also under pressure from the United States on the issue, will release Tymoshenko -- or at least let her go to Germany for medical treatment.

But he has refused to budge on the issue since sentence was passed on Tymoshenko last October, despite intense EU pressure.

With EU politicians apparently prepared to take only piecemeal action ahead of the Euros without concerted sanctions, it seems more likely he will seek to ride out the Europeans' displeasure and shrug off poor publicity during the tournament.

"It is a kind of last attempt by the EU to change the course of things in Ukraine," said Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

"It's very close to a deadlock. I would not see any bright future for Ukraine's relations with the European Union."

UNFAIR CRITICISM?

The 2004-5 Orange Revolution street protests against the sleaze and corruption of the old guard made Ukraine many friends in the West.

It continued to bathe in the after-glow of that popularity long after the "Orange" leaders came to power, fell out among themselves and were voted out of office.

Source: Chicago Tribune

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