KIEV, UKRAINE (AP) - Belarus‘ authoritarian president attended the final soccer match of the European Championship on Sunday along with top 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 met in the final, and the leaders of co-host Poland.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is already under fire for the politically tainted jailing of his main political opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. A number of 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 Chepak, disputed that, saying earlier in the day that if Lukashenko were to come, that would be a private visit unrelated to Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko’s office said she would be watching Sunday’s match on television from a closely guarded hospital ward in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where she is receiving treatment for a spinal condition that has rendered her immobile and in constant pain. Her prison is located in the city.
Earlier in the day, Polish President Borislaw Komorowski met with Ukraine’s opposition leaders who pressed on with their calls for Tymoshenko’s release. Tymoshenko’s top aide, Hrihoriy Nemyria, said he handed Komorowski two “Free Yulia” T-shirts, asking to pass the second one directly 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. She also faces a number of other criminal investigations, including a murder case.
She denies all the accusations against her, saying Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated her in the 2010 presidential election, threw her in jail to bar her from parliamentary elections. Tymoshenko was the central force of the 2004 Orange Revolution which annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted victory in the presidential election. But he was able to return to power by capitalizing on the slow pace of reforms and constant bickering in the Orange camp.
Hours before the match, Yanukovych and Komorowski shook hands and thanked each other for hosting Europe’s top sports event without any major glitches.
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.
(This version corrects spelling of Yanukovych’s spokeswoman.)