As referees pucker up to blow the opening whistle at Europe’s biggest football tournament – the Euro 2012 championships scheduled to begin in Poland and Ukraine on 8 June – heads of state across the continent are contemplating pouring a bucket of cold water over the celebrations.
Not without good reason, some would suggest. At issue is the perennial question of how closely sport and politics should be aligned – or, indeed, whether the two can be detached at all.
The specifics in this instance involve Ukraine’s opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister, who is now languishing in gaol on a seven-year term, having been convicted of ‘abuse of office’ over the brokering of a gas deal with the Russians.
Many in Europe view the charges against the ex-prime minster as trumped up and her imprisonment as utterly politically motivated. Indeed, that view was encapsulated in a comment last week from the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, Catherine Ashton, who was quoted by Bloomberg’s Business Week as saying: ‘We’ve been very consistent in sending messages to Ukraine about the importance of justice being done and seen to be done.’
For her part, Ms Tymoshenko adamantly maintains her innocence and has been on intermittent hunger strike to reinforce the point. She also claims she is routinely beaten by prison guards.
All of this has militated to create a political furore around the forthcoming festival of football. EU foreign ministers met last week to assess the position and to consider some form of political boycott of the tournament to drill home the human rights point to the Ukrainians – although, so far no country’s football association has suggested that its team will not turn up for event.
But is any boycott of the championships a real option for changing Ukraine’s political landscape? No.
Europe’s football governing body, UEFA, won’t risk an eleventh-hour change to proceedings as the final round is already sold out.
For those not completely obsessed with ‘the beautiful game’, allow me to make the point that football is a multimillion-pound business and that major international tournaments can’t be relocated at short notice. All threats to do so are effectively paper tigers.
But, beyond that, there are the more profound issues around the actual case of Ms Tymoshenko. Only a few people outside Ukraine have any detailed knowledge of the factual and legal position around the circumstances of her medical treatment.
On the other hand, the country’s wider current political situation, issues around its legal system and the ‘Putinisation’ of Ukrainian society, have been observed and commented on for some time. And, interestingly, no-one really cared about any of those issues before it dawned on the rest of Europe that a major football tournament was about to kick off.
Where has the West been all this time? Perhaps it was far too keen on the prize of apparent political stability once the heat of the Orange revolution six years ago had faded away.
However, my biggest criticism of the so-called guardians of justice and morality is that their understanding of the situation is selective.
Where was the outrage four years ago during the Beijing Olympic Games? At the risk of stating the obvious, China is a country that causes significant concern among human rights activists in the West.
Likewise, while there was considerable official chest-beating in London and elsewhere over last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix, there was not a hint of a boycott by the time the cars lined up on the grid and the starting lights flicked on. And where are the official howls of protest over the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest in Baku and Winter Olympics in Sochi? Both Azerbaijan and Russia are hardly shining beacons of human rights awareness in Western eyes.
Nobody can seriously claim that human rights or democracy in any of these countries are well cultivated. These are regimes that lock away political opponents, there are no constitutional procedures, and one can only imagine prison conditions there.
However, nobody wants to spoil things with important trade partners. The uncomfortable truth is that morality in the West can very much be up for sale. Nothing is more immoral than that. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that reaction to a possible boycott of Euro 2012 in Ukraine is irritation at the very least.
Besides, boycotting the football tournament will not help anyone. Demonising Ukraine’s government will only cause the country’s political élite to become more insular.
However, this should not be an excuse to maintain the status quo. Of course, human rights generally, and the rights of accused persons in court as well as the right of prisoners, should be respected. Necessary medical treatment should not become a political football itself. That position is not negotiable.
I refrain from any judgement as to whether MsTymoshenko was justly sentenced. Time will show whether she is guilty of any other crimes. Currently, the public prosecution office is investigating a murder allegation. If that accusation is proved, some in the West will have gone out on a limb and demeaned themselves.
Democracy and human rights constitute the pillars of the European culture and their protection at a cross-border level
has been vested primarily in the Council of Europe. Ultimately the council itself is the most suitable forum for debate around these issues.
It is crucial to stand for these values without limitations and not to make them dependent on the importance of a country as a trading partner. Otherwise, the West makes itself dishonest and untrustworthy.
Wolfram Rehbock is the senior partner at Kiev-based law firm Arzinger