Published June 11, 2012
Co-host Ukraine faced a boycott by Sweden, Britain and France over its record on democracy and human rights on Monday as it hosted its first match at the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
Sweden, which has been sharply critical of the prosecution and jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said it was not sending any government ministers to its match against the home side at Kiev's Olympic stadium.
England and France, Sweden's European Union allies, were due to play in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk without any of their government officials present in a snub to President Viktor Yanukovich. They and Sweden will be represented by ambassadors.
The opening match for Ukraine will bring some cheer to the soccer-mad former Soviet republic whose image has been hurt by bad publicity over the Tymoshenko case and racism allegations.
Sports Minister Borys Kolesnikov on Monday exhorted Ukrainians to hang national flags from their windows and trail streamers from their cars to boost the national side, underdogs in a soccer feast that is fielding Europe's best teams.
Kiev is likely to be turned yellow and blue because Ukraine and Sweden play in similar national colors. A festive atmosphere is expected and Ukrainians are hoping sport will triumph over politics on the night.
Meeting Swedish fans in Kiev, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov shook hands with a supporter and said: "Let's make a bet. You're for Sweden, I'm for Ukraine. I'll give you a bottle of beer if we lose."
Thousands of Ukrainians, cheek by jowl with visiting Swedes, will watch the game on vast TV screens in a central Kiev fan-zone which has done a roaring trade each night since the tournament began dispensing drinks and fast-food snacks. The city administration said that as of Monday morning 30,000 liters of beer and two km (1 1/4 miles) of sausage had been sold.
In the city of Dnipropetrovsk, an explosion on a tram, which injured nine people, caused a security flap since four bomb blasts wounded about 30 people there last April. But local authorities said Monday's blast was caused by an accident.
The unofficial boycott by the three EU powers serves up a reminder that Yanukovich's record on human rights and democracy could disqualify his country from entry into the Union's elite club of democracies.
Denmark and the Netherlands, also EU members, took a different tack and sent their ministers to attend their match in Ukraine on Saturday. But they used the occasion to meet victims of alleged police torture and discuss homophobia and the need for an independent judiciary in Ukraine.
The boycott by EU allies which also include Germany is aimed at securing the release of Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's main rival.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison last October for abuse of office and, even though the West says her trial was politically-motivated, Yanukovich has shown no sign of bending to pressure to free her.
She is now being treated in a Kharkiv clinic for chronic back problems and says she was physically manhandled by prison guards in April, a charge which authorities deny.
In Stockholm, a spokeswoman for Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt confirmed he would not attend any of the Euro 2012 games but played down the political significance, saying he had a busy schedule.
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who has criticized backsliding on democracy in Ukraine under Yanukovich, and Sports Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth will also not attend.
In London, a foreign ministry spokesman repeated the policy line that no British minister would attend matches in Ukraine during the group stages.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: "He's got a very busy schedule in the next few weeks ... There are no plans for any ministers to travel."
French Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron said on May 31 that no member of the government would attend the championship "as a result of Mrs. Tymoshenko's situation".
"She holds the same position as she had a week ago," her spokeswoman told Reuters on Monday.
Tymoshenko, who headed the government which secured the rights to co-host Euro 2012 with Poland, says she believes it will help cement Ukraine's rightful place in Europe and has not publicly backed a boycott by EU politicians.
But, having accused Yanukovich of being behind a political vendetta to neutralize her as a political force, she will draw satisfaction from any discomfort he is suffering now.
Her supporters are signaling they will be campaigning hard for her cause among the flood of foreign tourists into Kiev and the other Ukrainian host cities - Lviv, Donetsk and Kharkiv.
T-shirts bearing her image are on sale and her daughter, Yevgenia, who has been touring Western capitals on behalf of her mother, was meeting visiting European Parliament members.
Asked if her mother would watch Monday night's game on television in her hospital room in Kharkiv, she said: "Yes, I think so. I think they will allow her to do that."
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage in Paris, Matthew Falloon in London and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm; Editing by)