“Jailing former prime ministers is our national sport”

A poster in downtown Kiev in support of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Pascha has dodged the question twice.

It’s lunchtime, and there isn’t enough soup and fish and rice in the world to give him time to explain the minutiae of Ukrainian politics to me.

Or why Yulia Tymoshenko is still behind bars.

But I’m not giving up. If I’m going to write about it, I have to know.

We’re in an oasis of calm in what is eerily like Celtic Tiger Ireland. On the way to the cheapest and best restaurant I’ve been in since I landed on Monday, we passed an Aston Martin store.

Ukraine has come a long way in a short time.

I’m here to cover Euro 2012 for the world’s biggest news agency, and in the dead days of profiles and previews and pen pics, I took a walk down to the UEFA Fan Zone in the centre of the city.

In the midst of it all is a row of white tents, where activists protest against the jailing of ex-prime minister Tymoshenko on what they – and she – say are trumped-up politically-motivated charges.

Pascha looks exasperated.

“The best way to explain it is this- it’s our national sport. Others have hockey or football or table tennis, but here, we jail ex-prime ministers. It’s our national sport.”

From what I have seen, Kiev is a remarkable place in a remarkable country.

Fiercely nationalistic, they yearn to be part of Europe, but fear abandoning their culture.

They yearn to be independent, but fear cutting the ties with the old mother country, Russia.

It is not unlike Ireland of a hundred years ago. It is not unlike the Ireland of today.

But one thing is different. Here, the national sport seems to be jailing the opposition, whereas in Ireland, the people are the opposition.

Pascha’s explanation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I’m willing to buy it for now.

The activists protesting in the fan zone don’t make much sense either, but then English is very much a foreign tongue here.

What makes even less sense? We finish our lunch and return to the building where we have been spending the morning reporting on sport.

As we approach, the penny drops- this modern building of glass and steel is the Leonardo building. I recognise it, because I have written about it and its owner for an Irish Sunday newspaper.

It is not owned by some fat Russian oligarch, empowered and emboldened by the fall of communism.

It is owned by Seán Quinn, an Irish oligarch of an altogether different hue.

In a strange twist on Ukrainian reality, he is seemingly empowered and emboldened by the fall of capitalism in Ireland – much of its downfall due to him and his friends at Anglo Irish Bank, who are now trying to take this building off him.

Will they succeed? If they do, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for Irish taxpayers.

Because not only do we not jail former prime ministers in Ireland – we don’t jail anyone who isn’t poor.