Boycotting Euro 2012

Yulia Tymoshenko: twice Prime Minister, now a political prisoner?

By Babak Moussavi

The news that the England football team will not be followed to Ukraine by the UK government for the forthcoming European championships is widely seen as a stern diplomatic snub for Ukraine’s increasingly autocratic regime. Moreover, the UK is not the first government to announce its boycott: several countries including Germany decided in recent months to stay away unless the human rights situation improved. The President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, also announced that an EU delegation wouldn’t be going.

Why the fuss? In October 2011, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was jailed for seven years, for “abusing her office” by acceding to a gas deal with Russia while she was Prime Minister. For a while, it seemed as though her nemesis, Viktor Yanukovych had finally vanquished the Orange Revolution that had booted him out of office in 2004. He had fought a close presidential battle in 2010 (widely accepted as fair), and beaten Ms Tymoshenko. Now in power, he managed to throw her into jail (or rather, a female penal colony) in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. Five other members of her former government are also incarcerated.

Mr Yanukovych must have forgotten last October that his country was set to host the world’s second most prominent international football competition, with all the media and political attention that comes with it. While busy consolidating his power, he is now being exposed for increasingly dictatorial tendencies. Ms Tymoshenko is now seen as a martyr for freedom, and her beatings while in prison have caused outrage. Hence the political boycott from west European government for the tournament.

Sport and politics clearly do mix. Whether they should (or should not) is a separate question. By announcing that it won’t attend, the UK, German and other governments are sending a strong signal that a sporting celebration cannot be used to excuse autocratic behaviour.

And yet the next World Cup, after Brazil in 2016, will be in Russia in 2020. It is conceivable that Vladimir Putin might still be President then, and all the human rights abuses that have characterised his reign might still be continuing (not least in Chechnya). Would western governments be ready to face the diplomatic standoff that would follow a boycott there? And how about tolerant, democratic Qatar, in 2024?

It is a good sign that western governments are ready to boycott Ukraine in the light of the deteriorating political situation there. But if they were really serious about sending a message, would it not be even better to hold their teams back? A similar scenario happened with the Zimbabwe cricket team, though the abuses in that country were much more stark. I realise this suggestion might not be popular: football is a great source of entertainment for many people (including some of our editors!). But aren’t some things worth more than entertainment? What if, like a provision for joining the EU, holding a football tournament included some political conditions? UEFA, the European football authority, has said that the encouragement of greater openness is a factor in deciding who to award the tournament to, but if so, it sees thing the wrong way round: a country should commit to openness and tolerance before it wishes to be considered for hosting a major sporting event, not after it has been awarded it. Ukraine appears to be going backwards in this regard.

Whether the conditions for a full boycott are met in the case of Ukraine is debatable: the offences committed are not as egregious as in Zimbabwe, or South Africa under apartheid, where boycotts were actually carried out. People now generally accept that a boycott of Hitler’s Olympics would have been justified too. Mr Yanukovych may not be quite as nasty as those rulers, but his autocratic tendencies should be halted with a credible threat of a boycott that would lead to total embarrassment.

Capo di tutti capi

I suggest this, but I know it is a pipe dream, given the current state of football’s governance. While UEFA is responsible for hosting the European championships, FIFA is the world governing body that is the parent of all regional authorities. It is a colossal, money-making monopoly, often accused of corruption, and which is led by a man widely derided even by those within football, and yet who seems impossible to dislodge – at the last ‘election’ for President, Sepp Blatter was the only person on the ballot! With a rotten organisation like this, one can only be cynical about the prospects of greater values ever being considered by the football world’s governing elite.

The tournament will go ahead, and most people will probably forget before long that there was a bit of fuss about Ukraine’s political situation (both England and Germany might be knocked out in the group stages anyway). That is a pity, but a small political gesture like this will not be forgotten by Mr Yanukovych and other thuggish autocrats like him. What lessons football’s governing bodies take from this episode though, is anyone’s guess.

  1. Oleksandar Levchenko said:

    Second paragraph: “was jailed seven years” should read “was jailed for seven years”. I respect your enthusiasm but such needless errors show you up as an amateur.

    More worryingly, you are clearly not fully aware of the facts surrounding the case and are serving as a mouthpiece for western imperialism. I suggest that you take more time to study the case rather than just looking at BBC and Wikipedia.

    To compare Ukraine’s hosting of the UEFA European Championship in conjunction with Poland (as democratically chosen by UEFA members) as being in any way similar to cricket matches in Zimbabwe shows a childishness and, worse still, more of a desire to return to your imperial past. Ukraine is not Zimbabwe.

    • Thank you for your comment Mr Levchenko – of course, professional publications never make typos.

      Rather than offer simple ad hominems, which is all you have done, it might be more appropriate to provide a more substantive rebuttal, since you implicitly claim to have undertaken time to study the case. You could perhaps explain why I am factually wrong, and why jailing Yulia Tymoshenko was justified. If you manage that, then I would naturally accept that the entire case for a boycott collapses.

      Needless to say, being a “mouthpiece for Western imperialism” is not our intention. I fail to see how that claim is in any way relevant, or appropriate, let alone how this shows “a desire to return to [our] imperial past”. To prove this to you, I will offer you the opportunity to write a serious article for us, should you so wish.

      The point, in any case, was merely that a full boycott should be an option when a host country does not comply to certain standards. This was buttressed by showing that boycotts have indeed been carried out – such as in the case of Zimbabwe. As I said, however, the case of Ukraine is debatable.

  2. Oleksandar Levchenko said:

    As far as Tymoshenko is concerned, the matter is complicated and not one which as a case especially interests me. I think that she is far from the media-darling which she presents herself as (I hasten to add that a less attractive individual would not receive the same coverage as Tymoshenko) and on a pragmatic level has certainly had enough underhand dealings to warrant a stretch in jail. Judged purely on this case alone, the seven years is excessive and politically motivated, I agree, but I find it hard to muster up much sympathy.

    My point regarding Zimbabwe is that from your western background, you have chosen to associate Ukraine, a country which (whilst not without its own social and political problems) is developed with Zimbabwe, a country which regularly scores amongst the lowest in terms of quality of life indexes. Given that this is a championship, not one country visiting another, might it not have been better to speak in terms of the LA or Moscow Olympics as comparisons? In short, I simply feel that your choice of comparison shows your prejudices towards Ukraine which you yourself are probably unaware that you hold.

    Might I draw your attention to the Orange Revolution. Whichever side you wish to stand regarding the candidates, the fact is that we had a so-called revolution without any blood being spilled. Compare this to Libya and Syria and I think it becomes clear that Ukraine is a long way away from the chaos which regularly affected Zimbabwe around election time.

    Should countries who are not in wonderful relations with Great Britain now boycott the London Olympics? Maybe you are unaware but a large number of countries do not appreciate British actions in Iraq. But no, it seems that you have failed to think this through, since Britain is Britian (western, rich, good) whilst Ukraine is Ukraine (eastern, less rich, bad).

    The British media has gone to great lengths to paint Ukraine as a state full of racist huligans, e.g. Panorama warning black fans to stay away, should the Ukranian media now warn its non-white minorities to stay away from Britain given the racism which exists in your society (Stephen Lawrence case to begin with). I know that you have not written about this in detail here, although your article seems to be part of a general smearing of Ukraine occuring in the UK. Ukraine is not perfect, but if you boycott Ukraine for its flaws (political corruption, racism) then you should probably boycott your own country for its flaws (amongst which are also political corruption and racism).

    • My intention was not to equate Ukraine with Zimbabwe. I merely wanted to show that holding teams back is not a totally outrageous suggestion, as it is something that has happened before. I shall amend the article to make this clearer. I think that boils down to a misunderstanding, and vociferously disagree with you that my use of the Zimbabwe example reflected an unknown prejudice against Ukraine, or any other East European state.

      If you read some of our other articles, you will find that the general direction of our criticisms is actually towards the British government, not towards the “eastern, less rich, bad” states that you suggest. If we are as prejudiced as you imply, this might be difficult to explain.

      You suggest I might be unaware that the Iraq War was not popular in other countries; not only am I quite clearly aware of this, but you might like to recall that the Prime Minister who initiated that war with the Americans, Tony Blair, is now a deeply unpopular man in Britain, primarily because of that war. Moreover, if Britain were in danger of deteriorating into a corrupt autocracy, with David Cameron imprisoning opposition leaders and increasing his personal power and prestige, then yes, I would be ready to boycott the Olympics. But that doesn’t seem to be happening, and Cameron’s biggest political troubles at the moment are stemming from an open, impartial, judicial inquiry into media ethics, which his own government set up. Ukraine and Britain may both be flawed, but that does not mean the flaws are equal or the same, as you suggest at the end.

      Your presumptive claims about what I may be unaware of, or what my prejudices might be, or what I must have failed to think through, not only miss the point, but they add nothing to the reasoned discussion that we should be able to have. I must ask you to refrain from making them.

  3. Rudge said:

    Oleksander has started so I will continue.

    Brazil world cup is 2014, not 2016. Brazil’s government hasn’t contributed towards human rights abuses of any poor or indigenous communities, let’s all love Brazil.

    I personally can’t wait for Qatar in 2022 so we can see of they copy their athletics team and make some cracking international signings.

    We all focus on a few issues at the expense of others due to conscious and subconscious bias so I get that we should be aware of it. I would like to hear a few more specifics about the complicated nature of Ukraines situation which makes the writer’s views simple or inaccurate.

    I can see how a prime minister who supported a war and hasn’t stopped a war which has led to the deaths of innocent civilians for corporate and political gain and signs, as previous leaders have, to trade deals which may protect their own agricultural and manufacturing sector bit knowingly also lead to extensions of poverty and death could also be seen to be worthy of boycott on a sporting scale.

  4. Sam Hawke said:

    Boycotts are a difficult subject. Sometimes they successfully highlight and combat oppression and human rights violations, sometimes they reinforce Western hegemony. I agree that to stand by a boycott which is backed by Western governments may raise questions as to whether the boycott is really a good idea and not just a load of imperialist power-politics. These questions seem all the more pressing when those governments seem wilfully blind to much worse: we might wonder why Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, most likely a war criminal, was invited to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee.

    But Oleksander: I’d be wary of making accusations of prejudice and bigotry. Your comments about Zimbabwe may evidence much the same. It may be factually incorrect to claim that Ukraine has much in common with Zimbabwe, for various reasons, some of which you stated. What precipitated the boycott were more widespread accusations of political violence, and the countries remain very different. But you seem disgusted by the suggestion the two countries may have anything in common. And, of course, none of Babak’s claims required him to claim that the two countries have anything in common other than one very specific thing: political oppression or human rights violations that may justify a boycott. So your comment that the Ukraine scores far better on quality of life indexes seems anomalous. Why is this relevant? Despite its serious problems, Zimbabwe is a wonderful country of wonderful people, with much to rival other countries across the world, Western and otherwise. If you more fairly assessed Zimbabwe (and I suspect some other countries like it), I’m not sure you’d find the comparison so abhorrent. Your comments may give the impression that you resent comparison with Zimbabwe on the basis of a prejudiced, unfair assessment of the country as a whole, independently of the one commonality you may share (some level of political oppression or human rights violations, which of course you dispute).

  5. Oleksandar Levchenko said:

    Without wishing to get bogged down, from the outset I should like to make clear that I do not wish to tar all people from Zimbabwe with the same brush which I would gladly tar Robert Mugabe and his henchmen. I merely wished to point out that the situation in Zimbabwe regarding political/social freedom is far more grave than in Ukraine, and once you step onto a gradient of graveness then you must ask yourself at which point is the graveness sufficiently grave to warrant the boycott which Mr Moussavi suggests could be an option. I think that Mr Hawke, in his first paragraph, especially with reference to the Sri Lankan president, managed to express more effectively that which I had been getting at with regards to Western pick’n’mix approaches to who we wish to embrace (quite literally in the case of Blair with Gadaffi) and who we wish to cast as the bad guys.

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