The Ukrainian government reacted angrily on Monday to reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers are considering not attending matches in the European Championship soccer tournament in June in protest of the treatment of jailed former Prime Minister prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
"We would not like to think that the political leaders of Germany are capable of reviving the methods of the Cold War and making sport a hostage of politics," foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. "We would like to think we are just talking about a false media report here."
Merkel is reportedly considering cancelling plans to attend matches played by the German national team in Ukraine if Tymoshenko is still in jail then. The tournament is being co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland. Tymoshenko is imprisoned in Kharkiv, where Germany is scheduled to play the Netherlands on June 13.
Germany's other two first-round matches, against Portugal and Denmark, will also be played in Ukraine. Merkel frequently attends international football matches to cheer on the German team, but if Germany makes it through to the final, Merkel may also stay away from that match, because it is to be held in the Ukrainian captal of Kiev.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison term in Kharkiv following an abuse-of-office conviction criticized by many in Europe as politically motivated. She alleges she was beaten by prison guards. Berlin has offered to treat Tymoshenko, who suffers from back pain, in a German hospital.
Several German newspaper commentators say on Monday that the debate in the run-up to the championship is exerting much-needed pressure on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Two years ago, the Kremlin condemned human rights abuses in Belarus, another country over which it has influence. However, all was forgotten as soon as dictator Alexander Lukashenko joined the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan. How would Medvedev and Putin behave then if Kiev actually met the Kremlin's demands in the ongoing dispute over gas prices and pipes? The fact that Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years last October for what was construed as abuse of power in a gas deal with Russia might well play a role. But aside from the suspicion that Medvedev is simply taking the opportunity to torture Yanukovych, he is increasing pressure on the regime in Kiev, and that is a good thing."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Judging by her appearance alone, Tymoshenko is an icon. She is the most recognized of all eastern European opposition leaders. That makes her a burden for the football officials at UEFA, as it means they must take a stance on her case in the lead-up to the European football championships. But officials are still finding it difficult to show where they stand outside of the playing field."
"And yet, were they to take a position, the feeling of having done good would come cheap. The government has to release Tymoshenko at some point anyway, at least if they have a half-way decent PR adviser. But UEFA (Europe's football federation) continues to stay out of the debate, insisting that it is not responsible for politics, thus overlooking the fact that an international sporting event like the European Football Championships is in itself a hugely political act."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The agreement with Brussels is supposed to finally bring the country closer to the European Union. After all, with 46 million inhabitants, Ukraine is a highly interesting market for western business. While those that do business in the area might occasionally speak about a difficult environment, they still manage to do good sales. New investors remain cautious however. A successful 'Euro 2012' could dramatically change all that. The European Championship is about more than sport. In the ideal case, the tournament could serve as a positive economic influence and an almost self-propelling instrument of modernization."
"For this reason, demands to boycott the championships are misguided. Chancellor Merkel's advice to her ministers to stay away from the games, should Tymoshenko remain in custody, is short-sighted. A boycott would first and foremost affect players, fans and citizens, all of whom have nothing to do with the Tymoshenko case. Instead, the European championships should be used as an opportunity to raise awareness of blatant abuses. Political pressure must be directed towards the country's leaders rather than its citizens."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Kiev cannot afford to break with the European Union, and especially not with Berlin. The question arises as to why Yanukovych will not accept Chancellor Angela Merkel's peace offering: to allow the opposition leader to travel to Berlin to receive medical treatment. Not only would Yanukovych be praised for a humanitarian gesture, but it would also put an end to his international isolation. Yanukovych would gain latitude in dealings with Putin, whom he clearly does not like. The Russian Prime Minister is supposed to have repeatedly uttered disparaging remarks about the man from eastern Ukraine. Altogether it is unclear to what extent Yanukovych has an overview of the political situation. It could be that the entourage that he has built up around him shelters him from a portion of the media influence, which of course does not make him more inclined to take on a bigger responsibility for the Tymoshenko case as well as other abuses. There is also an argument to be made that the eastern Ukrainian steel barons have lost influence over the presidential office in Kiev in favor of the pro-Russian gas lobby."
"The German government has a huge psychological advantage. Germans are traditionally looked upon favorably by Ukrainians, as much in the Russian-influenced east as the Catholic west of the country. If Merkel continues to place diplomatic pressure on Yanukovych, she can be assured of the support of the Ukrainian press, which can still claim freedom of expression thanks in part to the help of Tymoshenko's campaign during the Orange Revolution eight years ago. The Chancellery is therefore doing well to put Yanukovych under renewed pressure, while avoiding sharp words in public."