Helen Goodman MP (Labour, Bishop Auckland) is shadow media minister.
It has been over a month since the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced her government would boycott all Euro 2012 games in Ukraine, due to the imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko after what the EU has called a ‘show trial’.
Last week David Cameron’s government made the comparatively meagre promise that no government ministers would attend England’s three group games taking place in Ukraine.
So far the government has shamefully been unwilling to comment on whether they will attend games in Ukraine should England advance in the tournament.
Sadly Ukraine’s decline from an open society to one that in many areas is now distinctly illiberal seems to have accelerated recently, as I saw when I visited last autumn.
Ukraine achieved independence in 1991 and in 2004, during the Orange Revolution. The people of Ukraine demonstrated their commitment to and desire for a fully open liberal democracy. We should support all those people who have been campaigning for political reform in Ukraine.
It is clear that the international community see the trial of Tymoshenko as nothing other than a ham-fisted attempt by the current Ukraine government to settle political scores and to exclude Tymoshenko from the political scene.
When in Ukraine, I struggled to find anyone who thought Tymoshenko’s trial was legally or morally justifiable. People were critical of her time in office, but were clear in their condemnation of this apparent abuse of power by the current regime.
It is not just Tymoshenko who has found herself subjected to the current regime’s illiberal tendencies. Around a dozen of Tymoshenko’s allies have either been investigated or convicted, judges have been sacked by Ukraine’s prosecutor general for refusing to arrest a suspect they believed there were no grounds to arrest and human rights defenders have found themselves being prosecuted on spurious charges.
What is particularly concerning, given that Ukraine will hold a general election this year, is the increasing sway the government has over the media. A survey of the content of the state-owned television channel found that 97% of its broadcasts were supportive of the government.
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Ukrainians also face significant economic challenges. I was shocked to learn that the Ukrainian economy is 30% smaller now than in 1991. Not only is the economy smaller, but there is far greater inequality in the country. It is not therefore surprising that some people are not entirely enamored of the new politics.
High unemployment has led to high levels of emigration. It is unclear but perhaps 3 million or 4 million people have left Ukraine. Such a situation has left behind a number of social problems, for example, abandoned children and older people not cared for. And Ukraine is vulnerable to the crisis in the eurozone.
In the long-term, Ukraine has a strategic significance for us and the rest of Europe. It is on the crossroads between Europe, Russia and the Caucasus, and has become one of the major corridors for oil and gas from east to west.
We should make it clear that we expect Ukraine to be a country that respects civil liberties, where the judiciary is independent, the media are free and we should look to engage with Ukraine’s economic development. That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that the government has halved technical assistance to Ukraine since the general election.
An open, democratic Ukraine is in the interest of all Europeans. That’s why we need to recognise the need to use both the carrot and the stick. Let us hope that the Ukrainian government learn something from hosting Euro 2012 and the British government realises it must take a much clearer line to pull Ukraine away from its Soviet past.