The World from Berlin: Ukraine Boycott Calls Meet with Skepticism

Should politicians boycott European Football Championship games to be held in Ukraine? Should those games be moved to another country? German politicians are up in arms about the treatment of imprisoned former opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. But their calls to action, say German commentators, are not always helpful.

A photo of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko during a May Day march in Kiev on Tuesday. Zoom
DPA

A photo of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko during a May Day march in Kiev on Tuesday.

On Monday, Kiev accused German politicians of employing "Cold War tactics" following calls on government ministers to forego attending European Football Championship matches held in Ukraine. On Tuesday, yet more political leaders in Berlin joined the chorus of condemnation -- with some even demanding that Ukraine be relieved of its co-hosting duties entirely.

Patrick Döring, general secretary of the Free Democrats (FDP), Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, demanded in the Tuesday edition of tabloid Bild that "should there be alternatives in Poland to host the games scheduled for Ukraine, they should be earnestly and quickly investigated." Döring's party colleague, Development Minister Dirk Niebel, supported the call, telling Rheinische Post that "it is good to show Ukraine what might happen in a worst-case scenario."

The pair was joined by several additional parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including calls to consider Germany as a possible replacement for Ukraine due to its proximity to co-host Poland. "Moving the games from Ukraine to Poland, Austria or Germany would be the correct political signal to the undemocratic government in Kiev," Erika Steinbach, the human rights spokesperson for the conservatives in parliament, told Bild.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the FDP stopped short of such demands. "If we were to decide now to boycott, that would mean that we would hardly have any possibilities left to improve the situation of Ms. Tymoshenko," Westerwelle said on German television on Wednesday morning. He added, however, that "we must do something."

Dramatic Appeal for Help

The mounting pressure on Ukraine comes as worries deepen about the condition of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who was sentenced to seven years behind bars last autumn in a trial the West has blasted as being politically motivated. Suffering from a slipped disk, she began a hunger strike last week after allegedly being taken to a Ukrainian hospital against her will, saying she was beaten en route. She has thus far refused treatment in Ukraine, saying she is concerned she will be poisoned.

On Monday, her daughter Yevhenia Tymoshenko made a dramatic appeal for help, telling reporters in Prague that "we are really running out of time. I don't know how long my mother can be on hunger strike, whether it can be five days or 10 days. We are not sure." She added that her mother is "very weak and her physical condition is worsening."

Despite such calls, it seems unlikely that the European Football Championship will be moved at this late date, with tournament director Martin Kallen telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung that "one couldn't make such a move in such a short amount of time." Still, several European politicians have suggested that they will not attend games held in Ukraine. Following a report in SPIEGEL on Monday that Merkel was considering asking her cabinet members to avoid Ukraine during the tournament, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen has issued a plea for European government officials to do the same. On Monday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he will not travel to Ukraine for the tournament, barring a drastic change of course by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Barroso's announcement came on the heels of a similar pledge issued by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

German President Joachim Gauck announced in late April that he was cancelling a planned trip to Ukraine for a heads-of-state meeting planned for mid-May in Yalta. Several other European leaders are considering joining him, with Czech President Vaclav Klaus announcing on Monday that he had officially cancelled his presence at the gathering. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Tymoshenko be released on Tuesday, saying in a statement: "We continue to call for her release, the release of other members of her former government and the restoration of their full civil and political rights."

German commentators on Wednesday address the mounting calls for a boycott of European Championship games in Ukraine.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"It is correct to call attention to democratic deficits by cancelling visits -- and when one shows a willingness to avoid allowing authoritarian regimes to host sporting events in the first place. But the same standards should be used for all."

"Ukraine is an autocratic system that limits the freedoms of its citizens. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, when the country briefly exhaled, freedom of the press has been reined in step-by-step. The same goes for the freedom of assembly: There have been cases of university professors threatening students with poor marks should they attend protests. As such, it is good to apply pressure on the Ukrainian leadership in the case of Tymoshenko."

"What is true of Ukraine, though, must also be true of the dictatorship of Belarus, which is set to host the ice hockey world championships. Or for Bahrain, which locks away members of the opposition while ensuring attention and revenues by hosting a Formula One race. Yes, and even Russia, which is hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, is anything but an exemplary democracy. Those wishing to pursue credible human rights policies cannot pick and choose."

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Whether a boycott or sanctions, one must identify a realistic goal when one seeks to exert influence on other countries. The weekend boycott flashmob against Ukraine failed to have the desired effect and led to a hardening of Kiev's position. No one can really be angry with the chorus of outrage: Tymoshenko is being treated disgracefully and no one needs the Yanukovych government as a friend. That a wave of fury has been triggered is hardly surprising. But how can one now take a step back? Two pieces of advice: reduce expectations and allow time to have its effect. Those wishing to help Tymoshenko should keep quiet for the time being. Ukraine will not respond to pressure."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung focuses on suggestions that the matches scheduled for Ukraine could be held in Germany:

"There is no question, of course, that Tymoshenko should be released and given adequate medical treatment. But it is difficult to believe the existence of pure motives behind the political efforts of certain Berlin parliamentarians in this case. The representatives are debating about moving the games, a proposal that is worth thinking about as boycotts can indeed be a method to force human rights improvements. But where did they suggest the games be moved to? To Romania, Lithuania or Denmark? No, coincidentally it is Germany they suggest as a replacement for co-host Ukraine."

"Such suggestions are guaranteed to result in solidarity with the Ukrainian despot -- from the country's equally objectionable neighbors as well as from the Ukrainian people themselves, who likely feel they are being cheated out of their fun. Such suggestions result in the opposite of that which is intended. It is as if the parliamentarians had never heard of the fact that Germany murdered more than a million Ukrainians 70 years ago. That fact cannot provide an excuse for human rights abuses in Kiev. But it does demand a minimum of sobriety."

-- Charles Hawley

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