The ambitious east-west project for Poland and Ukraine to jointly host
the Euro 2012 soccer championship was intended to showcase Ukraine's rapid European integration. Now, with the tournament kickoff just a month away, politics threaten to steal the show.
Politicians in Western Europe looking to express their displeasure with the treatment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and members of her government appear to have settled on something sure to get President Viktor Yanukovych's attention -- a boycott of matches held on Ukrainian soil.
But their protests are also putting pressure on EU-member Poland, which has been one of the leading proponents of the bloc's Eastern Partnership Program and of efforts to reach out to Eastern European neighbors generally.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said he'll skip the Ukraine portion of the championship. EU Justice Commissioner Vivian Reding will pass on the opening ceremonies. Austrian government officials will be no-shows, as will officials from the Netherlands and Belgium's foreign minister. The European Union's sports commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, also says she will not attend any matches in Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also reportedly considering a boycott.
Their decisions are intended to be a sign of solidarity with Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 on abuse-of-office charges, has gone on hunger strike to protest her treatment in prison and has demanded better treatment for a painful health problem.
The pressure comes on top of a widening boycott of a May 11-12 summit of Eastern and Central European heads of states to be held in the Ukrainian resort city of Yalta. At least seven EU heads of state have said they won't be attending.
Warsaw's official position is that political boycotts of athletic events are counterproductive generally and that a Euro 2012 boycott will do nothing to help Tymoshenko. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on May 3 rejected calls for a boycott and said Tymoshenko herself would not want to see the years of preparation that she worked so hard on come to nothing.
Poland's ambassador to the EU, Jan Tombinski, told RFE/RL he was disappointed by the "high level of politicization" of international sporting event.
"I'm not really a fan of boycotting sports events in such a selective way," Tombinski said. "We have in different countries in the world problems and we may be very critical against other countries -- [if] we apply this rule in a symmetric and equal way against everybody, then we will be really in trouble in the world because of the possibility of finding in all countries problems."
Tombinski added that the experience of the boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics showed that mixing politics and athletics is a mistake.
Polish lawmaker and member of the European Parliament Pavel Zalewski agreed, saying the criminal prosecution of former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky did not produce EU calls to boycott Moscow.
When over many years [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky...sat in prison for political reasons, I did not hear these so-called champions of liberty suggesting a boycott of Russia."
"When human rights were violated in Russia, when over many years Khodorkovsky has sat in prison for political reasons, I did not hear these so-called champions of liberty suggesting a boycott of Russia," Zalewski said. "On the contrary, they have had very intense relations with Russia. This apparently selective approach to the question of human rights, which is disproportionately harsh, will not influence the situation in Ukraine."
Kacper Chmielewski, spokesman for the Polish EU Embassy in Brussels, said it was more appropriate to pressure Ukraine on the political level, which Warsaw is doing.
"We have made many attempts to address this issue properly and to really get Kyiv to understand that all the strings are in their hands, that they have to pull them internally to address this accordingly to the standards of the European Union, to show that they are on the path and on similar standards," Chmielewski said.
Comparisons with the Olympics boycotts of the 1980s are not appropriate, says Michael Emerson, a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, because so far European politicians have only said they personally won't attend Euro 2012 events.
"An escalation in the affair reminiscent of the Moscow Olympics in the 1980s would be if the European Union member states withdrew their teams from playing," Emerson says. "But that's not the question at the moment, is it?"
The conflict around Euro 2012 is brought into sharper relief by the fact that the International Ice Hockey Federation plans to hold the 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus. The European Parliament has already appealed to the federation to reverse that decision because of the human rights record of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Poland has led the EU push for ever-tougher sanctions against Lukashenka's government in recent years. And this puts Warsaw in a tricky position. EU Embassy spokesman Chmielewski declined to comment on the hockey issue.
But Ambassador Tombinski noted that Lukashenka was an avid hockey fan and so, in this case, a politically driven athletics statement just might make sense.
"[If] we really use the means of showing our opinions to a dictatorial regime, to the Lukashenka regime, then we have to use instruments making real pain to him," Tombinski said. "And we know what a fan he is about hockey and it will really make [him think] there are some limits in how he behaves."
With additional reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels and RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Yuriy Savytsky in Warsaw