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21 May, 2012  ▪  The Ukrainian Week

How to Save Ukraine

The leading Western media have written much and mostly negative about Ukraine in the past few weeks, focusing on Euro 2012 boycott by European presidents for the bad treatment of Ms. Tymoshenko


Kyiv 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 Kyiv 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.


[German politicians] are afraid of the powerful Russia and will not get involved in an argument with it. But Ukraine is a border country, a black hole in the heart of Europe. The boycott of the Euro 2012 will not bring democracy to Ukraine, however it can convince the pro-European part of Ukrainian society that Europe is leaving it to its own devices when it is in trouble.


Sports and politics are intertwined in Ukrainian football…The championship was designed as a prestigious project that the nation’s political elite would benefit from. The Europeans’ decision to boycott the tournament was right. What other message could the European political elite send to the Ukrainian society when opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is being treated so badly? [...] A fair question now would undoubtedly be, whether European politicians will be as critical when looking at the Olympics in Russia’s Sochi in 2014 or the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus ?


Kiev has pursued what it calls a "multi-vector" foreign policy: in effect, playing Moscow and Brussels off against each other. The Kremlin wants Ukraine to join a customs union; Yanukovych has so far resisted. But the Euro 2012 fiasco leaves him isolated and weak, forced to look eastwards rather than westwards. The row isn't about football but Ukraine's geopolitical destiny. Do its current rulers want to adopt European values? Or is the aim of Yanukovych, an old-school apparatchik hewn from tough Soviet clay, to create his own mini-version of Putinism?

Tymoshenko has adroitly focused the west's attention on the dark things that have been happening in Ukraine since she narrowly lost to Yanukovych in the country's 2010 presidential election. During her election campaign, she warned that Yanukovych would rip up Ukraine's nascent democracy; her aides talked condescendingly of Yanukovych's "Soviet mental map". Not enough voters believed her. She was proved right more quickly than anybody expected… Many Ukrainians are now dissatisfied with the country's entire political class, seeing it as venal and self-serving. 


In some ways Mr Yanukovych is using similar tactics to those of his autocratic neighbour, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in Belarus. He has flirted alternately with Europe and Russia, in the hope of extracting concessions from both, yet yielding nothing serious to either. He wants the association agreement and he needs Western support for another IMF bail-out this summer. Should he get neither, he may turn to Moscow for help—which he would get only with unpleasant conditions.

This probably will not end well for Ukraine. The unfortunate Ukrainians find themselves not only at the mercy of their predatory ruler but also cut off from Europe. And it creates a headache for the West. The fear is that Mr Yanukovych could allow his country to fall under Russia’s sway…Such a setback for 20 years of Western efforts to bolster Ukraine’s independence is a grim prospect; EU countries should make clear to Mr Putin that it would damage relations with Russia.

Fears of Russian influence must not be allowed to dictate a soft response to Mr Yanukovych’s autocratic ways. He tends to treat friendliness as weakness, pocketing the proceeds. Instead, the EU should tighten the screws on the president and his Donetsk business associates—while also finding ways to hold out hope to ordinary Ukrainians.

High-level political boycotts are a good place to start. Several heads of state, including those of Germany and the Czech Republic, are rightly refusing to attend an east European summit with Mr Yanukovych. The EU’s political leaders (but not its soccer teams) should also boycott matches in Ukraine during the Euro 2012 football championships, which it is jointly hosting with Poland.

Off the pitch, the EU should press for fair parliamentary elections in October, sending as many observers as it can. Financial supervisors must apply money-laundering laws stringently to the huge sums flowing out of Ukraine to Austria, Britain, Cyprus and elsewhere. EU countries should withhold visas from those directly involved in the abuse of power. Yet at the same time they ought to make it easier for other Ukrainians to visit the West for study, trade and tourism. And they should do more to explain to Ukrainians the potential benefits of their association agreement, including the possibility that it might ultimately lead to EU membership. The West’s quarrel with Ukraine is with its president, not with its people.

Not all is lost. Ukraine’s political culture, and its press, remain vibrant and unpredictable. The next big test will come in October, when Ukraine is due to hold parliamentary elections. Two opposition parties—Ms Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front for Change—have said they will run as a united block. A Razumkov Centre poll puts their support at nearly 27%, against 23% for the Party of the Regions. Mr Yanukovych may find himself faced with a dilemma: does he act against his political instincts and allow his party to lose seats, or does he double up on his Donbass style and move the country one step further towards Belarus-like isolation?


Usually, it is American or Russian diplomats using straight talk to make a point and have the full backing of powerful states behind. EU’s diplomatic modus operandi is usually different. The EU has long been known for the fact that most of its diplomats are soft-spoken and controversy-shy project managers happily disbursing EU assistance, but avoiding tough political issues. Not least because their backing from ‘home’ can be less straightforward since the EU itself is so affected by many different, if not conflicting, member states preferences. In any case the EU has usually been a nice diplomatic pet, much easier to ignore than US or Russia. But not anymore.


''There are two models on offer, Argentina in 1978 and Moscow in 1980,” said an article in the German weekly Die Zeit. In Argentina, the World Cup soccer championship “proceeded unhindered despite many protests” against the junta in power at the time, while the Moscow Games were “boycotted by 64 countries including the United States and West Germany after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Europe’s behavior in Ukraine “must probably fall somewhere between the two.

But, in another place and time, the sporting boycott of white-ruled South Africa, which prevented foreign teams from visiting the country and hampered its ability to send its players overseas, took a cumulative toll on the apartheid regime.

The South African sporting boycott, though, was matched for many years by a tightening array of other penalties designed to squeeze the economy and turn the land into a pariah state.

No one is planning a comparable broadside against Ukraine. Since the days of the South African boycott, moreover, much has changed in international sports, notably the amount of money involved in sponsorships and broadcasting rights for events like soccer and motor racing.

The European tournament in Poland and Ukraine is to be broadcast live in more than 200 territories around the world.

Even as protesters took to the streets of Bahrain last month in a renewed upsurge of protest, the Formula One Grand Prix, canceled a year earlier as the Arab Spring spread along the shores of the Gulf, went ahead as if nothing untoward were happening beyond the racetrack.

Too much money and too much prestige were at stake to allow protest to sabotage high-ticket sports.

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