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Ukraine, Europe and the Euro Cup

In June, the EUFA Euro Cup Tournament will get under way in Poland and Ukraine. Despite the border they share, these two countries have evolved in remarkably different ways over the past 20 years, and a chasm between their respective economic, political and human rights records is causing some problems for the success of the football tournament. Naturally, this comparison is facile, yet the EUFA and its committees force it upon anyone interested in Eastern Europe today; Poland and Ukraine have a different political culture shaped by centuries of state and nation-building, and Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union while Poland enjoyed at least a semblance of sovereignty during its Communist period. Poland’s recent economic and political successes – a GDP growth of 5%, consolidated democracy, maturity and resilience in the wake of the crash that killed practically half of its Cabinet – the Cup this summer may fail to symbolize and represent its ‘return to Europe’, largely because of Ukraine’s astounding disregard for human rights.

It was thought in 2004, during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, that Ukrainians were tired of cronyism and corruption, that they envisioned for their future a consolidation of democracy and a move towards fuller integration within the European Union. Ukrainians took to the streets to ensure the victory of Viktor Yushchenko, who earlier that year had been the victim of an assassination attempt, and was disfigured after ingesting a potent dioxin in Agent Orange. He, along with Yulia Tymoshenko, represented the frustrated hopes of Ukraine; their main political opponent then, Viktor Yanukovych is now Prime Minister after a scandal-ridden 5 years. Yanukovych’s democratic election in 2010 attests to the sobering reality that revolutions are easy to make, but their values more difficult to entrench: political corruption remains so wide-spread in Ukraine, that even the purported harbingers of transparency are contaminated. Ukrainian voters, disillusioned by their disappointment – and unsure of their true geo-political loyalties – chose as Prime Minster Yanukovych whose, as the Economist puts it, “mafia-style politics of revenge” is emblematic of the political culture in the region of Donetsk, where he’s from.

In all truth, the international press and the European Union remained indifferent in 2010-2011 when Ukraine was obviously moving closer to Belarus and Russia in its political culture and respect for human rights than towards Poland. However, the recent flip which has ignited world-wide attention and has already forced Jose Manuel Barroso – the President of the European Commission – to boycott the Euro 2012 tournament is alarming for it is a symbolic rejection of the aspirations and demands of the October Revolution. Yulia Tymoshenko, protagonist in 2004, twice-Prime Minister has been imprisoned in the Kharkiv region, allegedly mistreated and beaten by prison officials, and went on hunger strike to protest her treatment from April 20 to May 9 of this year. Many European countries have offered her the medical treatment she seems to be withheld in Ukraine; her daughter has even pleaded the US Congress to interfere. Tymoshenko is probably guilty of corruption and abuse of power in brokering a gas deal with Russia in 2009. In Ukraine, where the legal system lacks independent legitimacy, her indictment was a foregone conclusion. That European heads of government – now including the British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angela Merkel – are using this opportunity to condemn the current Ukrainian government is not surprising. Whether threatening to boycott the Euro Cup is a reasonable means to express disapproval is one question, and whether it is in the interests of Europe and those Ukrainians still hoping for a move in the Polish direction, is the other.

My first reflex is shared by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt who suggested there was little place for politics in sport, especially not the Euro Cup or Olympics which are ostensibly about, as their pithy slogans are want to remind, unifying people. In some sense, this is hard to argue with: yet if sport should be treated in a different realm than the political, why are the teams themselves political? For what is a nation-state but a political construct? On some level, the Euro Cup is more than a diversion, a cash cow.  It’s a symbolically inclusive gesture to those countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkey which, for the moment, must limit their desires for inclusion and belonging to the ritualistic practice of donning sweaters in the modern equivalent of national warfare. It’s an empty promise, a bad joke. Perhaps they should accord EU-accession talks to countries that outplay and beat, in dramatic, fit-for-TV honour a European stalwart, a member of their “Original Six”?

Which is to say that: there are legitimate concerns Europe may have with Ukraine, even though Ukraine is European just as much as the next European country. If the “Euro” in the Euro Cup is meant to designate a geographic collection of countries, plus some far-flung and strange inclusions like Israel and Kazakhstan, then Ukraine has every right to compete and host without the perfunctory, condescending and ill-placed comments from other dignitaries, football not being something that immediately should or does concern them. That said, it is because the “Euro” in the Euro Cup signifies a certain cultivation, a certain set of principles, no doubt, but also a certain good taste:  at the very least, offering lip-service to justice as you swindle your opponent.  Just as the European demonym was intertwined with a certain set of principles during the Cold War, so too is it today. Then, as now, Ukrainian is not what is meant. Perhaps had the Orange Revolution turned out differently, but alas, it didn’t. One hopes that one disconcerting precedence set by the Orange Revolution – that is, naming all revolutions henceforth after colours – is one too many, and the ability of the revolutionary factions in the Middle East will have more success.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, and author of Every Nation for Itself, characterizes the world today as a “G-Zero” world, and Ukraine as a shadow state. Europe today is too weak institutionally to even consider expanding that far eastward, and its political capital and symbolic value no longer have the same “pulling” effect they once did a decade ago. Russia, thanks to high oil prices and an effective, if undemocratic, government, has satisfied itself with playing a hegemonic role in its traditional sphere of influence. Ukraine, with its 17 million ethnic Russians, the prevalence of the Russian language throughout, and a lack of natural resources the likes which Russia enjoys, is the satellite state unlikely to ever be untethered. Putin is trying to include Kiev in a customs union with Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan; this would be, in an immediate sense, beneficial to Ukraine, even if it would signal its unwillingness to extricate itself from its Russian neighbour – a difficult feat when said neighbour shows little reservation about cutting off your energy supplies in the dead of winter as a negotiating tool.

That said, Ukraine is in talks to joint the EU to set up an “association agreement” facilitating trade, and will likely need the IMF’s help next year. It must balance its interests, too. Although human rights abuses must be condemned, and a boycott of the Euro Cup may send a signal to Ukraine that it needs to get its act together. With Yanukovych in charge, oil prices high, the EU’s light waning, Putin freshly re-elected, and the Orange Revolution somewhere between deeply failed and completely abandoned, maybe Europe’s long-term objectives would be better realized by treating the Euro Cup for what is really is: a political masquerade, a nationalist frenzy, a good-natured competition between countries in the European sport of football. Acknowledging this, European leaders should do as everyone, every time, does with China: be (or feign) indignance, but show up for the photo finish. Symbolically, it is important. Perhaps Yanukovych and Putin are more than happy to share the grandeur of the final match alone, without Merkel or Barroso present. Ukraine and Poland will be the symbols of “New Europe”. Ukraine, however, will have the double distinction of being at the centre of Europe and yet, always and forever, in the pocket of Russia.



–  Christophe Cinqmars-Viau

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