In a stinging humiliation that underscores Ukraine's increasing isolation, President Viktor Yanukovych today bowed to a boycott by a dozen European leaders angry over treatment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, indefinitely postponing a prestigious summit meeting it was to have hosted this week in the Crimean resort of Yalta.
"Due to the fact that a number of European heads of states are unable to attend the summit of presidents of the Central European Countries in Yalta, Ukraine found it reasonable to postpone it until a later date," Alexander Dykusarov, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a terse statement.
The event was meant to showcase Ukraine's growing integration into the European community, and to set the stage for Ukraine's co-hosting, along with Poland, of the Euro 2012 soccer championships – a huge event in the life of all Europeans – next month.
Instead, the growing impression is that Ukraine is falling out of the European orbit and drifting back into Moscow's embrace.
Leaders of Germany, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, and others have refused to attend the annual regional meeting in an escalating row over the alleged mistreatment of Ms. Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison last October for "abuse of office" while she was prime minister. She also faces a fresh trial on charges of alleged tax evasion, which is scheduled to open in a Kharkov court later this month.
Tymoshenko, who says all the charges are politically motivated, is currently on a hunger strike and alleges that she has been beaten in prison. She also says she is suffering from severe chronic back pain brought on by her ordeal, and has criticized her treatment by state doctors in a Kharkov clinic. Her family wants her to go to Germany for treatment, but she refuses to leave Ukraine. In any case, there seems little chance the Yanukovych government would let her leave.
She was scheduled to be seen by German doctors at a Kharkov clinic today.
"She has not abandoned her hunger strike and she will not abandon it until the question of her situation has been resolved," Tymoshenko's lawyer, Olexandr Plakhotnyuk, told journalists today. "She is drinking only water. What will take place next will be decided after she meets doctors today."
Tymoshenko was narrowly defeated in presidential elections by Yanukovych two years ago, and was rapidly removed from all her official positions shortly afterward.
She remains Ukraine's top opposition leader, and her prosecutions by the Yanukovych government are widely suspected of being a means of removing her from the political stage in advance of parliamentary elections slated for later this year. Ukraine's next presidential polls will be held in 2015.
Calls are now mounting for a boycott of Ukrainian venues for the Euro 2012 soccer matches which, if it happens, will strike hard at Yanukovych's personal prestige and the sensitivities of all Ukrainians.
The foreign ministry in Kiev warned last week that any targeting of the soccer championship to punish Yanukovych would "damage the interests of millions of ordinary Ukrainians that vote for various political parties or who are not interested in politics at all."
Ukraine has at least one reliable friend in freshly inaugurated Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has dismissed any suggestion that Moscow might join such a boycott, saying "you can't mix politics, business, and other issues with sport."