UK government boycotts Euro 2012 over Ukraine treatment of Tymoshenko
Exclusive: Foreign Office confirms no officials will attend Euro championship games in Ukraine over jailed opposition leader
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 June 2012 15.10
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who has been jailed for seven years in what her supporters called a show trial. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP
The government is to boycott the Euro 2012 football championship which begins on Friday in protest at the "selective justice" being meted out to the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
In a move that is likely to infuriate Kiev, but will delight human rights campaigners, the Foreign Office confirmed that no ministers would attend England's three group-stage matches. England plays its first game against France on Monday in the eastern city of Donetsk. There will be no official British presence at England's two other qualifying games, against Sweden on 15 June in Kiev, and against the hosts Ukraine in Donetsk on 19 June.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: "The government fully supports England's participation in Euro 2012. We hope this is a successful tournament for the England team, the fans, and the people of Ukraine and Poland." He added, however: "No ministers will be attending group games at Euro 2012. We are keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament under review in the light of ministers' busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine."
The boycott by Downing Street comes after several EU countries led by Germany announced that they would not be attending games in Ukraine. Last month Angela Merkel said that she and her cabinet would not attend any German games played in Ukraine, which is co-hosting the tournament with Poland, unless the human rights situation under President Viktor Yanukovych improved.
The president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, and Viviane Reding, the commissioner for justice, have also confirmed they will not be travelling to Ukraine either. Several European leaders including the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, and Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, also called off a regional summit last month at the Ukrainian resort of Yalta.
Oleg Voloshyn, the foreign ministry spokesman in Kiev, told the Guardian he regretted the UK's "emotional" decision. He said: "There are multiple channels to express the British position as far as the Tymoshenko case is concerned. It has already been done in a clear and consistent way.
"The boycott of the sporting event that has nothing to do with politics is a sign that the British government is inclined to resort to emotional rather than deeply calculated steps. [They] damage football but don't influence in any positive way the situation with the issue that concerns London."
Diplomats indicated that ministers might turn up to later matches, but probably only in the – perhaps unlikely – event that the England team make it through the quarter-finals and reach a semi-final to be played in Poland's capital Warsaw. Thursday's announcement also follows widespread fears of a racism in Ukraine, and a controversial Panorama documentary last week in which the former England defender Sol Campbell warned that England fans travelling to Ukraine could come back "in a coffin".
The government had earlier indicated it was reviewing the situation. But Downing Street now finally appears to have lost patience with Yanukovych, who is accused by his critics of showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, was jailed for seven years in October after what her supporters say was a politically motivated show trial. Yanukovych has refused to release her despite weeks of EU pressure.
Tymoshenko staged a hunger strike in April after photos appeared showing bruises on her body. She claims prison guards assaulted her and punched her in the stomach. Ukrainian prosecutors say her injuries were self-inflicted. Tymoshenko is currently being held in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, where her condition is being monitored by German doctors. The city is the venue for Germany's first group stage match against the Netherlands on 13 June.
The political debacle is a huge embarrassment for Uefa. Football's governing body in Europe had hoped that expanding the tournament eastwards would showcase the progress made by independent Ukraine since the collapse of communism. Instead it is now looks increasingly likely that Yanukovych will sit in the VIP box on his own, with David Cameron and other European leaders shunning him.
The criticism from western Europe has provoked a sharp response from Kiev. The foreign ministry in Kiev has accused Berlin of cold-war thinking, while officials have suggested that the Germans should refrain from meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs.
Speaking last month the former Europe minister Denis MacShane said Kiev only had itself to blame for the unfolding mess. He described Tymoshenko's trial as "purely political vindictiveness to ensure there is no coherent opposition to this increasingly authoritarian regime". He pointed out that when in power, Tymoshenko had refrained from prosecuting Yanukovych after his attempts to cheat during Ukraine's 2004 presidential election backfired and sparked the country's Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych won power in 2010. "It is Yanukovych who is putting the clock back by jailing his political opponents, rather than arguing with them or outvoting them in the ballot box," the Labour MP said last month.
BBC News UK Politics
7 June 2012 Last updated at 15:04 ET
UK ministers boycott England games in Ukraine
UK government ministers will boycott England's group games in the European football championships in Ukraine.
The move is in protest at the "selective justice" meted out to jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
A Ukrainian government spokesman said the boycott could "only damage football".
Other EU nations including Germany, Holland and Austria have also threatened a boycott of the tournament being jointly hosted with Poland.
Ms Tymoshenko played a key role in the Orange Revolution in 2004 and says her imprisonment is an act of political revenge by Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych.
The authorities have rejected Ms Tymoshenko's allegations. She was jailed for seven years in October, for abuse of power during her time as prime minister.
'Rule of law'
Last week, she ended a 20-day hunger strike after being moved to a hospital in Kharkiv where she is being treated by a German doctor.
The UK Foreign Office said no officials would attend the three group games and it was keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament "under review in the light of ministers' busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine".
Asked about the boycott, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Ukraine had "serious problems" and the UK government did not want its backing for the England team to be interpreted as "giving political support to some things which have been happening in Ukraine which we don't agree with".
The BBC News Channel's chief political correspondent Norman Smith said the move was a "serious diplomatic snub" for Ukraine – which is hoping to use the tournament to boost tourism and showcase the country to the rest of Europe.
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshin said Britain's concerns were understood, but the boycott would only damage football and would not affect Ms Tymoshenko's case.
If England are to reach the final of the tournament, they must play at least five games in Ukraine.
Should they get through to the knock-out phase, they will play their quarter final in either Donetsk or Kiev. If England come second in their group and go on to win the quarter final, their semi-final will be in Donetsk. The final is to be held in Kiev.
UK Sports Minister Hugh Robertson would normally have been expected to go the group games, but was occupied with Olympic duties, the Department of Culture Media and Sport said.
"No final decision had been taken about which ministers were to go," said a spokesman.
Ms Tymoshenko's daughter Eugenia this week told BBC News she "understood" the political boycott but wanted the tournament to go ahead.
"We understand the political boycott of European leaders who protect the rule of law, who respect human rights, who cannot go there and shake Yanukovych's hand. But I think sports events should go on... My mother, when she was in government, fought for the right to host this championship in Ukraine."
Poland has warned that the European Union should not push Ukraine into the arms of Russia through a boycott.
President Bronislaw Komorowski told Polish state television: "We feel that Ukraine is somewhere between a choice of integration with the Western world... or a chance to participate in a customs union proposed by Russia.
"From this point of view, Poland has well-grounded fears that it [boycotting] might result in Ukraine choosing a political route alternative to the process of European integration."
Labour are backing the government's stance.
"It is right that UK ministers will not be attending the championships and the government should take care that none of their actions over the next few weeks are seen to endorse the conduct of the government of Ukraine," shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said.
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UK government boycotts Euro 2012 over Ukraine treatment of Tymoshenko