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Putin criticizes Euro 2012 boycott calls

By James Montague, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Fri May 4, 2012
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has spoken out against European leaders' boycott of Ukraine's Euro 2012 matches, saying sport and politics should not mix. Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has spoken out against European leaders' boycott of Ukraine's Euro 2012 matches, saying sport and politics should not mix.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin criticizes political boycott of Euros
  • Says sport and politics shouldn't be mixed
  • EU leaders boycotting event over jailing of former Ukrainian PM
  • Supporters say charges politically motivated by current president

(CNN) -- Russian premier Vladimir Putin has criticized plans by European leaders to boycott next month's Euro 2012 football finals due to the treatment by Ukrainian authorities of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has raised her concerns at Tymoshenko's treatment, while European Union president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and the governments of Austria and Belgium have all said they will not be attending any matches in Ukraine in protest.

But Putin has waded into the row, telling journalists in Russia that sport and politics should be kept separate.

"In absolutely every case, you can't mix politics, business and other issues with sport," Putin told Russian news agency Novosti.

"I stick to the principle professed and supported by the International Olympic Committee -- sport is outside politics."

Tymoshenko claims beatings in jail
Daughter on Tymoshenko's jail ordeal
Former Ukrainian PM found guilty

Putin's statement echoes the sentiments of Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone, who defended the elite motorsport's decision to race in Bahrain last month despite widespread concerns over human rights issues.

Tymoshenko, the heroine of the Orange Revolution that swept the country in 2004 and 2005, has been in prison since last October for alleged abuse of office.

Her supporters claim that the charges were politically motivated -- drummed up by current president Viktor Yanukovych, who beat Tymoshenko in Ukraine's 2010 presidential election. It was alleged voter fraud by supporters of Yanukovych during the 2004 presidential elections that originally sparked the revolution.

Her party was expected to be a formidable foe in next October's parliamentary elections.

Last week pictures of Tymoshenko released by her family appeared to show bruises she claims came from a beating by a prison guard. She has since gone on hunger strike in a bid to secure medical treatment she says she is being denied.

Taking place a little over a month before the Euro 2012 opening ceremony in Poland, which is co-hosting the tournament, the row is just one of several controversies that have threatened to overshadow what the Ukrainian government had hoped would be a showcase event for the country.

Despite huge investment in Ukraine's aging transport infrastructure, the country has struggled in its preparations. Stadium delays had initially put Ukraine's hosting of the tournament in jeopardy, but now new problems have emerged.

Hotel prices during the tournament have risen so sharply due to profiteering that Michel Platini, head of European football's governing body UEFA, was unusually critical when visiting Ukraine last month for the opening of a new airport terminal.

"It's annoying to have made a lot of investment and then say to people that they can't come because there are bandits and crooks who want to make a lot of money during this Euro," he told the assembled press in Lviv.

You can't mix politics, business and other issues with sport
Vladimir Putin

Security concerns were raised when multiple bombs exploded in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, close to Donetsk where the England team will be playing some of its matches. More than 20 people were injured in the blasts. The authorities have so far blamed criminal gangs rather than terrorists for the attack.

And earlier this week Amnesty international warned football fans traveling to Ukraine that they will face a "criminal" police force mired in so many abuse scandals that its behavior threatens to ruin the showpiece tournament.

The Amnesty International report "Ukraine: Euro 2012 jeopardized by criminal police force" details how security forces have been implicated in numerous cases of torture and extortion in cities due to host matches.

According to the report, one recent case in the eastern city of Lviv -- where Germany, Portugal and Denmark will play -- details how two men were beaten, robbed and then imprisoned by six police officers after a disagreement in a bar.

Prosecutors originally refused to open a criminal case until CCTV footage emerged of the incident after one of the men's lawyers gave an interview to a local TV station.

"The Ukrainian government must take action now to stop widespread police criminality," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

"Failure to do so will encourage them to continue acting as a law unto themselves and put Euro 2012 fans in danger from a force that is out of control."

There are bandits and crooks who want to make a lot of money during this Euro
UEFA chief Michel Platini

The Ukrainian foreign ministry responded to the avalanche of negative press stories this week in bellicose terms.

"The Foreign Affairs Ministry considers destructive the attempts to politicize sporting events, which have played an important role in the process of establishment of intergovernmental mutual understanding and unity since the earliest times," it said in a statement posted on the website of the Ukrainian News Agency.

"The calls to boycott the championship would in practice amount to undermining the image of a grand sports event and damage to the interests of millions of ordinary Ukrainians that vote for various political parties or are not interested in politics at all."

Poland is split on the controversy, with opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski calling for a boycott of the event and suggesting that matches be moved to Warsaw. But president Bronislaw Komorowski dismissed those calls as "inappropriate."

Meanwhile Merkel, a keen football fan whose comments earlier this week on the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko sparked the media furor, says that she will wait until the very last minute to decide whether to attend the tournament.

"I always decide on such things at short notice," she told Koelner Stadt Anzeiger, a regional newspaper in Germany..

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