Many politicians in Germany and Europe have pledged to stay away from Ukraine during the European Football Championship tournament in protest over the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko. Polish international relations expert Janusz Reiter, 59, explains why that is the wrong strategy.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Reiter, do you understand German politicians who say they don't want to sit next to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the football stadium of Kharkov, just a few kilometers away from where Yulia Tymoshenko is imprisoned?
Reiter: I understand it very well. But the issue is not the proximity to Yanukovych. The issue is Ukraine's relationship with Europe. The European Football Championship should be a signal to the country that it belongs. Many Europeans have the impression that Ukraine is far away.
SPIEGEL: Yanukovych will do his best to transform the tournament into a propaganda coup.
Reiter: There is an intense discussion in Ukraine at the moment over which direction the country should turn. The country possesses a critical media and a civil society. One is not forced only to deal with those in power. Ukraine is not a dictatorship.
SPIEGEL: What would be the results of a boycott?
Reiter: I think that the large majority of Ukrainians would be disappointed in Europe, and rightly so. Ukraine is currently drifting eastwards, but the country isn't lost yet. We have to use the European Championship to bind them closer to us. Should we lose Ukraine, the political damage would not be easy to fix.
SPIEGEL: Has the European Union done enough in its recent dealings with Ukraine to present the country with a real alternative to the eastward drift you describe?
Reiter: There is a real feeling of helplessness. Ukraine is a difficult country, but we can't give up on it. Our long-term interests must include assisting the establishment of democracy and the market economy.
SPIEGEL: The EU was slow to offer Ukraine a clear and close partnership. Should Kiev even have been granted the opportunity to join the European Union?
Reiter: That would have been my desire. But I have to admit that Ukraine would not have made it easy for the EU.
SPIEGEL: Some in Poland are quick to criticize Germany for concentrating too much on Russia and ignoring the Eastern European countries in between. Is that still true?
Reiter: German has done more than most. But has it been enough? I don't think so.
SPIEGEL: Poland would like to capitalize on the European Championship to show the world that it is back, that it is a key country in the heart of Europe. Do you find the ongoing debate about a boycott of Ukraine upsetting?
Reiter: I don't think that Poland will suffer as a result. But it is in our interest that Ukraine shares in the success. Ukraine is not the Soviet Union. Today's situation is different than the one in 1979 when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan (precipitating the United States-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics). That is why the vast majority here is opposed to a boycott.
SPIEGEL: Germany's energetic pursuit of the debate has forced other European countries to take a stand. Was that a mistake?
Reiter: The aim is to increase pressure to force the Yanukovych government to change course. But what will we do if it doesn't work? It would be terrible if the question were to divide Europe.
SPIEGEL: What about the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship, which are to take place in Belarus? Should that tournament be cancelled or relocated?
Reiter: Belarus is a dictatorship. But the country is also home to an opposition that seeks to lead the country towards the West. We have to support such people and show them that they too belong to Europe. I would be very hesitant about calling for a boycott of the Ice Hockey World Championship.
Interview conducted by Jan Puhl
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