British ministers pledged Thursday to boycott the early games in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament over concerns for the health of Ukraine's imprisoned former prime minister, despite pleas from Kiev that soccer and politics shouldn't mix.
The move adds to the frustrations for Ukraine, which has been battling accusations of racism, homophobia and mistreatment of ex-leader Yulia Tymoshenko. As a result, the Eastern European nation has found itself under the microscope as the games approach.
Britain left open the possibility of going to later Euro 2012 games, but linked its involvement to the treatment of Tymoshenko.
“We are keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament under review in the light of ministers’ busy schedules ahead of the Olympics [in London] and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday.
The British ministers join a growing group of European leaders, including European Union officials and the presidents of France and Belgium, planning to avoid the games over concern for Tymoshenko. The former leader is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abusing her power, a conviction Western leaders believe was politically motivated.
Tymoshenko claimed she was assaulted in prison earlier this year and supporters are worried about her health, triggering fresh condemnation of her plight.
Ukraine has denied her accusations and protested that the games shouldn’t be politicized. Its EU representative on Thursday downplayed the refusals to attend, stressing that the European Parliament had decided against an official boycott of Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported.
Adding to the calls to snub the games, gay rights activists from the All Out campaign have called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to boycott, outraged over a proposed Ukrainian law they say would virtually ban all information about homosexuality. Germany has warned of a possible boycott in the past.
Other Europeans plan to steer clear of the games after a BBC documentary warned of white supremacists in Ukraine and Poland, which is co-hosting the games. Fearing attacks, the families of two black players on the British soccer team have reportedly said they won’t attend the matches.
Ukrainian and Polish officials have complained that the problems have been exaggerated and promised that fans will be safe. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Voloshyn told the Associated Press that his nation was “one of the leaders in Europe” in racial and religious tolerance.
The furor clearly wasn't what Ukraine had hoped for.
"They wanted to use the European championship as propaganda to show Ukraine as a big European country with great potential," Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta think tank, told Reuters. "But today it is clear that these plans have not materialized."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A worker is seen near Olympiyskiy national stadium for the Euro 2012 soccer championship in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday. Credit: Sergei Chuzavkov / Associated Press