KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – If soccer fans aren’t seeing enough action on the field in the European Championships, they can get a dose of rough-and-tumble Ukrainian politics near the fan zone in Kiev.
Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister and the country’s top opposition figure, have gathered in a protest camp next to a special area where fans mingle, drinking beer and watching matches on giant screens. On display at the camp is an effigy of a judge, a pile of mock human waste and a plastic pig with the president’s face.
The championships already are being boycotted by Western leaders to protest Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. And the protesters hope their eye-catching camp will further raise pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych to release her.
“We are showing what our government is really like,” said Ivan Shibko, a top activist at the Tymoshenko camp. “They are doing this to keep opposition leaders in jail during elections.”
Tymoshenko’s seven-year jail sentence in October over abuse of office charges drew a storm of anger and condemnation from the West. The United States and the European Union called the verdict politically motivated and several Western leaders canceled plans to attend Euro 2012 matches played in Ukraine. The EU also put on hold a key cooperation agreement with Kiev over Tymoshenko.
The charismatic, blond-braided Tymoshenko says Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated her in the 2010 presidential election, threw her in jail to bar her from the October parliamentary vote. Tymoshenko, 51, spearheaded the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests that annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted presidential victory. But he returned to power, capitalizing on slow reforms and constant bickering in the Orange camp.
Yanukovych has defied Western pressure to release Tymoshenko and even linked her to a murder case 16 years ago in an interview this week, further diminishing her chances of getting out of jail any time soon. Yanukovych also insists that the boycott by European leaders will have no effect on the championship’s success.
Parliament members from Tymoshenko’s party said they would be watching football matches from sport bars, rather than from gleaming new stadiums alongside top government officials, in protest of her jailing. And while they will be rooting for Ukraine, Tymoshenko’s supporters also plan to “enlighten” foreign fans on the true face of Ukraine’s leaders.
The work is already under way at the protest camp set up nearly a year ago outside the central Kiev court house where Tymoshenko was tried and sentenced.
On a hot afternoon this week, supporters wore white T-shirts reading “Free Yulia” on the front and “Football fest in prison” on the back. They handed out brochures and posters and gave foreign fans guided tours of the camp, where the mock human waste represents Yanukovych’s party and the hanging effigy the judge who sentenced Tymoshenko. The opposition leader herself was shown as a white dove locked in a cage. An English translator was on duty to assist the fans.
“It seems very confusing: Why is she in jail? Nobody knows,” said Swedish fan Hakan Kronander, wearing his team’s bright yellow T-shirt, as he strolled through the tent camp. “They (EU) should put pressure on Ukraine to do something about this.”
Dressed in the fake chain armor of a medieval knight despite 25 Celsius (77 Farenheit) heat, English fan Stan Stanfield climbed on top of the Yanukovych-faced pig and posed for a face-in-hole photograph, pretending to be a boxer punching the Ukrainian president in the face.
“It’s disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” Stanfield said. “She’s been locked up, she’s a victim of a corrupt society.”
Stanfield is captain of a team of English fans that will be playing against Ukrainian fans next week. His side will be wearing “Free Yulia” T-shirts.
“We will help in any way we can by joining the cause and the fight for Yulia,” Stanfield said.
But despite the giant Tymoshenko posters, catchy banners and scores of national yellow-and-blue flags, the tent camp seemed drowned out by the soccer fan zone and the general festive mood of the football championship. Some fans stopped at the camp, while many others went through it without paying much attention. Earlier this week, an attempt by Tymoshenko supporters to stage a rally outside the Olympic stadium where the England team was playing France, was blocked by riot police.
Two top EU envoys were in Kiev this week on a mission to monitor the legal proceedings in the Tymoshenko case, hoping to pile pressure on Yanukovych ahead of an appeals hearing at the end of this month.
But experts predict she will remain in jail _ despite opposition efforts to highlight the Tymoshenko case to the West and to visiting fans.
“There will be T-shirts, there will be rallies in the fan zone, some statements from EU officials,” said Vadym Karasyov, a Kiev-based political analyst with ties to the government. “But nothing will change radically: Yanukovych will not let her out of prison before elections. You don’t have to be a political scientist to see that.”