KIEV, Ukraine – Belarus' authoritarian president will attend the final soccer match of the European Championship on Sunday along with other EU leaders, in an awkward move that would likely embarrass the Ukrainian co-hosts of the event.
The appearance of Alexander Lukashenko, who faces EU sanctions for cracking down on dissent in his country, would hardly be welcomed by the prime ministers of Spain and Italy, whose teams will square off in the final, and the leaders of co-host Poland who will all be in attendance.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is already under fire for the politically tainted jailing of his main political opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Top EU leaders are boycotting Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine, including Sunday's final in Kiev, over her imprisonment, calling it an attempt to sideline a political rival.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for nearly 18 years, earning the nickname in the West of "Europe's last dictator." The U.S. and the European Union introduced sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on the opposition after a 2010 vote deemed fraudulent by international observers.
Lukashenko's spokesman, Pavel Liogkiy, said the president will be attending the Sunday match at Yanukovych's invitation. But Yanukovych's spokeswoman, Darka Cherpak, disputed that, saying earlier in the day that if Lukashenko were to come, that would be a private visit unrelated to Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko, 51, the country's top opposition leader was sentenced to seven years in prison in October on charges of abuse of office when negotiating a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009. Yanukovych has resisted strong Western pressure to release Tymoshenko and even linked her to a murder case 15 years ago, suggesting she would not be freed any time soon.
Tymoshenko denies all the accusations, saying Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated her in the 2010 presidential election, threw her in jail to bar her from parliamentary elections.
Hours before the match, Yanukovych and his Polish counterpart, Bronislaw Komorowski, praised their countries' success in hosting Europe's top sports event.
"Even though the Poland and the Ukraine teams are not in the final, I am completely sure that Poland and Ukraine have won the Euro 2012 championship," Komorowski said.
A beaming Yanukovych thanked Komorowski for organizing this "soccer holiday."
"I am convinced that this experience that we got will serve us in the future," Yanukovych said.
But the festive atmosphere was soured by calls from Tymoshenko's supporters to free her. The country's top opposition leaders met with Komorowski earlier in the day and gave him a T-shirt that read "Free Yulia" and asked him to pass another such T-shirt personally to Yanukovych.