Some European leaders have announced that they may boycott Euro 2012 — the continental soccer contest set for next month — because of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest and imprisonment.
This is madness. It reveals even more of the tone-deaf approach the European Union and the United States take to the former Soviet Union, and risks pushing the country back to the welcoming arms of Vladimir Putin and Russia.
Some perspective is in order here. Tymoshenko was tried and convicted of abuse of office, a real and legitimate crime in Ukraine. For years, the U.S. and European Union lectured Ukraine about the need to prosecute corruption and apply the law to the great and the small, and never to interfere with the judicial process. Ukraine thus prosecuted its former prime minister (and other officials) for what appear to be overwhelming evidence of breaking the law, and a court sentenced them to prison.
The West now demands that these prosecutions be unwound and the judiciary’s verdict repealed by the country’s executive. This is a crystal-clear message if there ever was one.
Tymoshenko’s saga has continued in prison, where she is on a hunger strike, has refused medical attention (while demanding to be transferred out of the country for the same medical attention), and now claims she was beaten by a guard. For the last, there are photos. At best, Tymoshenko’s recent treatment appears heavy-handed; at worst, it is far worse. Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, has promised an investigation, and a prosecution is likely to follow. Ukraine is not a perfect democracy — it is still struggling toward a democratic ideal — but it is not a state that condones prisoner abuse.
Ukraine’s treatment at the hands of the West is a study in botched diplomacy and hypocrisy. Iceland’s prosecution of Geir Haarde (he was found guilty of neglect in his time as prime minister, but received no sentence) was not met with diplomatic isolation. China’s ruthless persecution of its dissident population neither threatens its foreign standing nor stops the United States from handing over its blind dissidents.
And now the threatened boycotts. For comparison’s sake, this would be like a threat to boycott the Super Bowl and the World Series here. The enormous soccer competition is one of those things Europeans do together now instead of making war on each other — a profound development no matter how light it sounds. Its importance cannot be easily overstated. And now it is being held hostage to a demand to release a woman lawfully convicted of a crime.
In the words of Oleg Voloshyn, a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman, this sets a dangerous precedent. “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,” Time quoted him as saying.
What the West does not understand is that in the former Soviet Union, present-day politicians must live with the ghosts of the recent past. Tymoshenko attempted to prosecute Yanukovych, her political rival and predecessor, when she was in office. Her time in government was marked by corruption, seizure of private property, and the gas deal with Putin for which she was prosecuted — a deal that impoverishes Ukraine to this day, hindering what has otherwise been a remarkable case of political and economic reforms.
Ukraine is struggling toward a better democracy while cleaning up Tymoshenko’s mess. In the meantime, it has set its sights on the European Union and away from the siren embrace of Russia, tied by history, faith, and cheap natural gas. It has become a vital NATO partner in an area where Putin’s revanchism threatens the peace.
In this situation, with Putin waiting and ready to accept Ukraine as his very own, smart, quiet, back-channel diplomacy would be infinitely more successful than publicly threatening an event for which Ukraine has been preparing for over a year, with all the eyes of Europe watching. Instead, Europe’s political class appears poised to disappoint once again, to tarnish the biggest sporting event of the year, and to make a resolution of the Tymoshenko matter that much less likely — while making Russia look more attractive at the same time.
Thus the question for Europe: No matter how bad Tymoshenko’s trial and imprisonment might look, do we really want to help Vladimir Putin grow his empire?
<a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-94874p1.html?pl=edit-00&cr=00″>Mark III Photonics</a> / <a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/?pl=edit-00&cr=00″>Shutterstock.com</a>