Monday 11 June 2012

Ukraine and Euro 2012: disjointed responses from short-sighted EU leaders

Adam Lenton

Euro 2012 can help foster closer ties between Ukraine and the EU, and in turn encourage necessary reform. UEFA.
Spectators may lament the cacophonous jeering and put-downs that so often resonate in the Commons, but seldom have issues provoked such passions that result in physical violence.  So it’s extraordinary to see that in the Ukrainian Rada a brawl managed to break out over language policy- not least of all because such an issue is relatively unimportant in the UK. 
Yet in Ukraine language is at the heart of politics. Simply depending on the speaker’s preferred language of either Russian or Ukrainian, you can make a reasonable assumption as to which kinds of political parties they vote for and what their opinions are even on thorny issues of nationalism, independence and relations with Russia and the West. So it should come as no surprise that the debate on whether to make Russian a co-official language in certain parts of the country caused a fury. 
This couldn’t contrast more with the bouts of jubilant flag-waving that have infected the mood in the UK. At a time when the future of the Union is increasingly uncertain, the very flag which could cease to exist is experiencing an uncharacteristic surge in popularity- an Indian summer of sorts represented in a shared feeling of national pride. As Ukraine prepares to host its own major international event in the form of Euro 2012, the contrasting fractures could not be more apparent in what is proving to be a rather sad year for Ukrainian politics- at a time when things should be at their most jubilant.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko showing bruises during her imprisonment. Photo: AP. 
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office in what has been described as "justice being applied selectively under political motivation", has attracted the most attention from outside. A vociferous critic of the current pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment has heralded a new willingness from the Yanukovich adminstration to push the limits on what is acceptable conduct. 
EU leaders have responded in kind by making it clear that the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine will not progress without the implementation of the rule of law. Germany, taking a leading stance with Angela Merkel spearheading a campaign to boycott the games, seems to have succeeded in coaxing other governments- including the French- to not attend matches in Ukraine unless Tymoshenko is released. This garbled attempt to force pressure has so far not had the desired effect, for the simple reason that the Yanukovich administration is unlikely to make a humiliating about turn, and even less likely to go so far as to overturn what they believe to be a perfectly legitimate conviction. 
So far the UK has been reticent to join the political stalemate, and a lack of any unified EU policy regarding the tournament has enabled the UK to keep its distance. In addition to this, England’s fixtures are all in Ukraine. And unlike France and Germany, the UK is careful not to politicise a major sporting event just weeks before the Olympic Games begin in London. Whilst in other EU countries the focus has been on politics of whether to boycott or not, in the UK the focus has been more on football hooliganism and racial hatred, with ex-England captain Sol Campbell decrying scenes of racist abuse shown on a BBC Panorama documentary.  Some of the sensationalist articles about extreme right-wing hooliganism display a contemptuous level of hypocrisy that seems to forget England’s appalling contribution to the history of football violence, with former captain John Terry facing a racism trail after the tournament. Similarly, European leaders cannot both denounce racism in Ukraine, yet be blind to the kind of racism that haunts black footballers such as Mario Balotelli in EU states like Italy (which incidentally hopes to secure the 2016 tournament).  
However, both the UK’s and other European nations’ policies have been disjointed, ineffective, and worst of all, incredibly hypocritical. The UK needs to develop a response to the situation. Simply allowing a discrediting media campaign to ferment does not constitute a well-reasoned response to the political issues at stake, nor does it help strengthen ties between both countries. It is worth remembering that a reinvigorated Putin is in an advantageous position to further draw pro-Russian Yanukovich closer to Moscow should European governments act too belligerently. 
Ukraine may not host such an important tournament for decades to come, and boycotting the games, or by remaining silent in the face of media discouragement will hurt ordinary Ukrainians more than it will the administration. If the EU wants political and legal reform it must realise that Yanukovich will need far more encouragement to do so than his pro-EU predecessors did. In turn, that means choosing which battles to fight and coming to the conclusion that in the long run, Ukraine will stand a far better chance of becoming an EU member if sport is not tainted by politics, and that EU citizens give Ukraine a chance and develop stronger ties with each other. 

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