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Ukraine Risks Isolation As Jailed Tymoshenko Becomes Cause Célèbre

Yulia Tymoshenko's hunger strike and accusations of prison abuse have raised the stakes after her controversial conviction on corruption charges last year. At risk: Ukraine's hosting of both an upcoming political summit and next month&am

Yulia Timoshenko in 2007 (European People's Party)
Yulia Timoshenko in 2007 (European People's Party)
Maxim Yusin

KIEV - Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych is facing the most serious political crisis since taking office in February 2010.

The international community is increasingly rallying around his former rival for the presidency, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is holding a hunger strike and says she has been beaten in prison, after her controversial conviction on corruption charges last year.

Several leading politicians, including European Commission head José Manuel Barroso, have called for a political boycott of the Ukrainian matches of next month's European soccer championships, which are being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Meanwhile, leaders of Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Slovenia have refused to take part in a May 11-12 summit of Central European countries in the Ukrainian seaside town of Yalta.

Experts do not rule out the possibility of Yanukovich making concessions, such as agreeing to send Tymoshenko abroad for treatment.

The strong reaction within Europe to the Tymoshenko case has taken Yanukovich by surprise. The West had already shown some difficulty accepting the legal process that culminated with Tymoshenko"s harsh seven-year sentence for abuse of office relating to the gas deal she signed with Vladimir Putin in 2009. Still, criticism was largely kept under wraps.

But this time, European politicians have reacted in a very public way. German President Joachim Glauck, once a human rights activist, will not attend the Yalta summit, and his lead was soon followed by Czech President Vaclav Klaus, as well as heads of State from Italy, Austria and Slovenia. Estonian and Latvian leaders may also join the boycott.

Ukraine's foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshin tried to play down the controversy, indicating the leaders who would not attend, but without making mention of the reasons. A spokesman for Klaus said the Czech president would not attend due to several reasons with the Tymoshenko case being "one of the main ones."

But the more serious threat may indeed be a potential boycott of the Ukrainian portion of the European soccer championships, which start June 8. Chairman of Germany's Social Democrats Sigmar Gabriel and German environment minister Norbert Rettgen have appealed to European leaders not to attend any games.

This was supported by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso who announced he will not attend the Ukrainian matches of the European championship, nor any formal events organized in the country to mark the tournament. For Barroso, it was a difficult decision: his native Portugal will play all three group games in Lviv and Kharkiv. It was revealed that whether chancellor Angela Merkel will attend "will depend on the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko."

Switch to Spain?

In addition to Germany and Portugal in Kiev, Donetsk, Lviv and Kharkiv will host teams from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, England, Sweden and the Ukraine team itself.

The tournament was set up with tourism in mind, and Ukraine was eager to attract fans from the countries it is hosting. The country could lose hundreds of millions of euros if German, British and French fans don't turn up. The tournament has been beset by a series of troubles, first relating to hotel prices, which had been inflated by almost ten-fold. Then there were terror bomb attacks in Dnepropetrovsk, prompting many European fans who were going to fly to Ukraine, to surrender their tickets.

Now the call for the political boycott is becoming more and more real. The president of the Spanish football federation, Angel Maria Villar, has formally proposed to the European soccer federation UEFA to transfer Euro 2012 to Spain.

"The threat of transfering the championship to another country is a serious one," says Ukrainian political analyst Dmitry Ponamarchuk. "If Yanukovych believes that it is not a bluff, he may make concessions for Tymoshenko.

Ponamarchuk says a scenario where the former Prime Minister is allowed to travel abroad for treatment is possible. "I do not think he will free her outright -- that requires a court decision," he says, "Judicial red tape means it would take a long time, and Euro 2012 starts in little over a month."

Kiev is counting on the support of soccer authorities in Europe. Ponamarchuk says that Yanukovych will turn for support to UEFA President Michel Platini, who is considered a "friend and reliable partner."

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