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Football Tournament Spat: Ukraine Warns Berlin of Economic Consequences

By  in Kiev

A top official in President Viktor Yanukovych's party has warned Germany of economic consequences should Berlin continue to pressure Ukraine over the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Western politicians, the official said, seem to have taken the case personally.

Demands to free imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko hang at a camp of her supporters in Kiev. Zoom
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Demands to free imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko hang at a camp of her supporters in Kiev.

The Ukrainian leadership in Kiev is increasingly indignant at the growing number of boycott threats in the run up to the European Football Championship tournament and at demands that imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko be released or allowed to receive medical treatment abroad.

"It seems to me that the Tymoshenko case has become a very personal one for some politicians in the West," Leonid Kozhara, deputy head of President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions*, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Berlin, he continued, apparently has taken the demise of the Tymoshenko-led Orange Revolution as a "personal defeat." Kozhara, responsible for his party's foreign policy, noted that Berlin had been a significant supporter of the pro-democracy Orange camp.

Kozhara warned that the ongoing conflict over Tymoshenko's imprisonment and her declining health could poison the relationship between Ukraine and Germany.

He said that, were pacts such as the currently frozen association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, to fail, then economic relations between Kiev and Berlin would suffer as well. "Without the agreement, German access to the Ukrainian market will be limited," Kozhara said. "German producers would be the losers."

Kozhara's comments came in the wake of the Thursday afternoon announcement that all 27 members of the European Commission were planning on staying away from tournament games scheduled to be played in co-host Ukraine. The European Football Championship is the second-most important sporting event in Europe behind the World Cup. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has also said he will not attend games held in Ukraine and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy added his name to the growing list on Thursday.

'Not a Boycott'

In announcing the decision, a Commission spokesperson stressed that it was "not a boycott, but a signal that we are not satisfied with how Tymoshenko is being treated." Ukraine, however, is not impressed. Hopefully, said Kozhara, the European football association UEFA "won't take part in the EU's political wrangling."

Tymoshenko, formerly President Yanukovych's chief political rival, was sentenced to seven years behind bars last autumn for abusing her position while prime minister, a verdict widely seen in the West as having been politically motivated. While in prison, Tymoshenko has suffered a herniated disk, but has refused medical treatment in Ukraine for fear of being poisoned. Germany has offered to provide treatment in Berlin and Russia too has offered to host the opposition leader, but Kiev has so far refused. Echoing the position of the Ukrainian government, Kozhara claims that Tymoshenko "acted criminally" while in office and, in signing a natural gas deal with Russia in 2009, caused "colossal damage" to the country.

The Foreign Ministry in Kiev has condemned the European Commission announcement, saying it is "destructive" and "hurts the interests of millions of simple Ukrainians." Earlier in the week, ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshin accused the German government of using "Cold War methods" after several parliamentarians in Berlin proposed relocating tournament games hosted by Ukraine.

On Thursday, tournament co-host Poland came out against a boycott of the games in Ukraine, though Prime Minister Donald Tusk emphasized that he had "appealed a number of times to the authorities in Ukraine not to let politics ruin this national celebration." The human rights organization Amnesty International is also opposed to a boycott. "Politicians and sport functionaries that travel to Ukraine must use the opportunity to call attention to serious human rights violations and to demand that the Ukrainian government does a better job of protecting human rights," Wolfgang Grenz, general secretary of Amnesty Germany, told the business daily Handelsblatt.

President Yanukovych himself has remained silent on the issue thus far. Kozhara too seemed eager to play down the Commission's announcement. It is in no way a boycott, he said, rather a private decision taken by the 27 commissioners.

*Eds. Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece identified Kozhara as Yanukovych's deputy. Kozhara is the deputy leader of the Party of Regions, led by Mykola Azarov and to which President Viktor Yanukovych belongs. We sincerely regret the error.

With wire material

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
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