Ukraine: Euro 2012: A victim of power games

15 May 2012 – Polityka (Warsaw)

With less than a month left to go before the kick-off of the Euro 2012, the fate of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has poisoned relations between the EU and Ukraine — the co-organiser of the championship along with Poland. However, the issue of human rights is only one aspect of a story in which business interests have also played an important role.

Politicians from several countries have now followed the example of the Germans and canceled their attendance at the football championship fixtures in Ukraine, in protest against the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The wave of anger at her mistreatment in the Kharkiv penal colony has also reached Brussels, where Commission president José Manuel Barroso, as well as a number of European commissioners, including Education, Culture, Multilinguism and Youth Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou and Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, have announced they will not set foot in Kiev.

However, the controversy has failed to disturb the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine, Gregory Surkis, who has continued to insist that the official Euro 2012 slogan — "creating history together" — has a real meaning for his country, where he believes the championship will be a catalyst for change that will take place regardless of the attitude of the commissioners in Brussels.

An agreement signed under duress

For Poland, Euro 2012 offered a promise of development — new motorways, new airports and railways — and, of course, an ultra-modern sports infrastructure. At the same time, the championship was supposed to seal a partnership with Ukraine, which had been a priority for successive presidents and governments of all political hues.

However, the same could not be said for Ukraine, where such constancy in politics has been largely lacking. Trouble was already brewing in the years that followed the 2004 Orange Revolution, which were marked by growing tensions between [the two main actors of the revolt] President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Thereafter, the country, whose largely unreformed and increasingly fragile economy was based on heavy industry and mining, took a turn for the worse amid the global financial crisis. Before long, the state coffers were empty, inflation was out of control, and the Ukrainian hyrvnia was growing weaker by the day. With the threat of bankruptcy on the horizon, loans from international institutions were the country’s sole source of external funding.

It was at this moment that the Russians delicately choose to turn off the country’s gas supply, and to demand a new pricing agreement and the payment of outstanding arrears. As the gas ceased to flow towards Europe, the situation became critical. Ukrainian industry was on the brink of disaster, while the country’s population was on the verge of revolution. It was then that Tymoshenko, the prime minister at the time, put on an elegant black dress and a pearl necklace before heading to Moscow for talks with Putin. In January 2009, the two countries signed up to the gas deal, which, a few years later, resulted in criminal charges and the seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office which the former prime minister is currently serving. The agreement in question was perhaps not perfect, but it was the sole option to save her country’s economy, and it was signed under extreme duress.

With hindsight, a crucial aspect of the deal was the manner in which it put an end to the role played by RosUkrEnergo, a company that acted as an intermediary with Russia, which as a result suffered heavy losses. Even more importantly, the ownership of RosUkrEnergo was split 50-50 between Russia’s Gazprom and Dmytro Firtash — a Ukrainian oligarch with close links to current President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Given that sport and politics in the Ukraine are as intertwined as Yulia Tymoshenko’s plaits, you might assume that the oligarchs, who have invested millions in the construction of new stadiums, would do everything possible to ensure that the championship is not only a success, but also a step towards integration with the European Union, which offers them an opportunity to develop their business interests. As the sponsors of Ukrainian politics, they are the ones who could exert pressure on the president to resolve the Tymoshenko affair. Why, you might wonder, have they not done just that? As it turns out, the reason is quite simple: they know that with a snap of his fingers, Yanukovych can cut off their access to the former state industries from which they derive their immense wealth.

An air of scandal

When he was elected, President Yanukovych was intent on settling old scores with Yulia Tymoshenko. In the Orange Revolution, she and Viktor Yushchenko had not only deprived him of power, they had also accused him of election fraud and drawn attention to his criminal past. Added to these grievances, neither of which he was not likely to forget, there was also the issue of the position of influence and the sizeable amount of money that had been lost by his party.

Notwithstanding the scandal surrounding the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, Brussels opted not to interrupt ongoing negotiations on its association agreement with Ukraine. The document was in fact signed, though not, as initially planned, during the Polish Presidency of the EU, but only at the end of last March. However, there is no possibility that it will be ratified given the current state of affairs: especially in the light of the promise Yanukovych allegedly made to Berlin to the effect that he would modify the law to allow for the liberation of Mrs Tymoshenko, whose main obstacle to freedom was the independence of the Ukrainian judiciary.

Having said all that, we should also bear in mind that Mrs Tymoshenko is by no means as white as snow. Like so many others in the early days of the transition from communism, she also earned millions from cutting deals with the state and participating in the privatisation of publicly owned companies. In particular, she and members of her family invested heavily in the energy sector, which was soon awash with sums of money so enormous that there was no question but that they would inevitably exert an influence in politics.

During her time as government leader, she had no scruples about indulging in unabashed populism and handing out public money with the sole objective of remaining in power. But at the same time, she was the new face of Ukraine, a beautiful woman, who was a far cry from the familiar old-fashioned and austere image of the Soviet period.

So why the sudden upsurge in western interest in Yulia’s fate? Because Yanukovych has stepped over the line by trying to hoodwink western leaders, most notably Angela Merkel. He could have employed any number of strategies to resolve the situation without losing face. But instead of that, he opted to sink deeper into the mire and completely discredited Ukraine in the process.

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that this is only one explanation of the state of play in Ukraine. Those who enjoy a good conspiracy theory are more inclined to believe that the boycott launched by Berlin is in fact a German-Russian attempt to deflect Europe’s strategy: the first step in a drive to undermine support for a European future for Ukraine as well as Polish efforts to give the country a European rather than a Russian destiny, which will ultimately force Kiev into the arms of Moscow. In a nutshell, this hypothesis has it that the Tymoshenko affair is simply a pretext for dropping Ukraine. Who is to say? Only one thing is certain: the climate surrounding Euro 2012 will undoubtedly be a toxic one.

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