BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that Ukraine was a “dictatorship” and likened it to Belarus, one of Europe’s most isolated countries, in her sharpest comments to date against the former Soviet republic.
Merkel has been an outspoken critic of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich for his treatment of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. But the chancellor’s comments in a speech to German lawmakers confirmed the extent to which Ukraine’s image has slipped in the West over the Tymoshenko case.
“Today, we in Germany and the European Union live in peace and freedom,” Merkel told the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, during a foreign and security policy speech.
“Unfortunately, not all of Europe is, because in Ukraine and Belarus people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression.”
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year jail sentence for an abuse-of-office conviction, after a trial denounced by the West as politically motivated. She has also accused prison guards of beating her up - a charge they deny - and went on a now-ended hunger strike for about three weeks in protest.
The row has prompted European Union commissioners and several other Western politicians to threaten to boycott the month-long European soccer championships, which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland in June, in sympathy with Tymoshenko.
In her speech, Merkel also urged Europe and its allies never to forget their duty to uphold democracy and human rights.
Yanukovich is not likely to look kindly at being placed in the same stable as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has governed with an iron fist since coming to power in 1994, cracked down on public protests against his government and thrown opponents into jail.
The EU and the United States have imposed travel sanctions against Lukashenko and his inner circle of political associates. Last February EU countries pulled their ambassadors out of Minsk, though they have since returned.
Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alessandra Rizzo