Euro 2012 a political headache for Ukraine
Soccer’s European Championship was Ukraine’s chance to shine:
forge closer ties with the West, boost its international standing
and aid its struggling economy.
Instead, it’s turned into a major headache.
In a move reminiscent of the Cold War, top EU officials have
vowed to boycott matches held in Ukraine over the alleged
mistreatment of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Critics warn that fans may be put off by exorbitant Ukrainian hotel
prices and that the cash-strapped government has endangered the
country by spending as much as $14 billion on the championship.
”This was a chance to show off the country because a thousand
journalists will come here” said Oleh Rybachuk, a member of
Tymoshenko’s first Cabinet who has turned into a civic activist.
”Now those thousand journalists will come and write about a
”The image, political and economic benefits – I don’t see
any,” Rybachuk said.
Ukraine was awarded the 2012 Euros along with neighboring Poland
in 2007 in a decision meant to reward and promote the two
soccer-loving ex-Communist Eastern European countries, with Poland
already a proud member of the EU and Ukraine aspiring to join. Back
then, the Ukrainian economy was booming and the West was infatuated
with the country after the 2004 pro-democracy mass protests known
as the Orange Revolution brought to power a pro-Western
Ukraine is an entirely different story today as the tournament
opener next month approaches.
Tymoshenko, the charismatic blond-braided Orange Revolution
heroine and the top opposition leader, is serving a seven-year
prison sentence for abuse of office. Western countries decried the
conviction last year as politically motivated persecution by the
regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose fraud-tainted election
victory Tymoshenko helped overthrow in 2004.
Tymoshenko on Wednesday ended a hunger strike she launched
nearly three weeks ago after prison guards allegedly folded her in
a bedsheet and punched her in the stomach, as she screamed for
help. She was already suffering from debilitating back pain.
Photographs of large bruises on Tymoshenko’s abdomen and arms
released by the country’s top human rights official, shocked the
international community and prompted top EU officials, including
European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission
President Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the governments of
Austria and Belgium to cancel plans to attend soccer matches in
Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested she would only
visit Ukraine during the championships if Tymoshenko’s treatment
”The lack of senior foreign officials attending the tournament
is embarrassing for Yanukovych’s government and will continue to
generate bad press for the country,” said Alex Brideau, a Ukraine
analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that advises on
In a further embarrassment, Ukraine had to cancel a regional
cooperation forum of central and eastern European states after more
than a dozen leaders refused to attend over the Tymoshenko
Financially, the country is also in a bad shape.
The global financial crisis nearly destroyed Ukraine’s economy,
causing gross domestic product to plunge some 15 percent in 2009
and it has not fully recovered. A $15.6 billion rescue loan from
the International Monetary Fund has been frozen for over a year due
to Yanukovych’s reluctance to carry out unpopular austerity
In this situation many wonder if Ukraine can afford Euro
The government says it has spent some $4.3 billion (3.3 billion
euros) on building stadiums and upgrading roads and rail transport
for the championship, but total figures that would include
construction of government-subsidized hotels, promotional campaigns
and staff training have not been released.
The Kiev-based consultancy Davinci Analytic Group estimates that
Ukraine will spend a total of least $14 billion on hosting the
championship, most of it coming from government coffers. The group
estimates that up to $8 billion of that amount will not be returned
in the medium term, as tourism is unlikely to significantly rise
after the championship. Co-host Poland will spend even more – 95
billion zlotys ($29 billion, 22 billion euros) on upgrading its
infrastructure to host the event, according to official figures,
but 40 percent of that will be covered by EU funds.
”This is a staggering amount of money to spend on the European
Championship,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business
strategy and marketing at Coventry University, said of Ukraine. He
added that much wealthier Britain will spend some 10 billion pounds
($16 billion) on the summer Olympics in London.
”In terms of economic returns, was that the best way to spend
The top official in Ukraine from the Union of European Football
”I am convinced that Ukraine needs this project very much,”
said Markian Lubkivsky, UEFA’s Euro 2012 director in Ukraine. ”We
are getting integrated into the European community … this is a
”We are going to be left with modern infrastructure … we are
going to receive lots of guests and I hope that many of them will
visit our country in the future.”
Chadwick, however, pointed out that Greece, now in deep
financial crisis, hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics but then failed
to ensure that the expensive stadiums and training facilities were
used beyond the games. The Davinci group estimates Greece’s
financial losses from the Olympics at $4 billion.
”The evidence tends to suggest that the stadiums tend to stay
and rust,” Chadwick said.
Opposition lawmaker Ostap Semerak from Tymoshenko’s party has
accused the government of embezzling up to $3.7 billion (2.8
billion euros), by subcontracting friendly firms at inflated prices
and then getting kickbacks.
A recent promotional video commissioned by the government caused
a stir when it became known that the 30-second clip cost $160,000
in taxpayers’ money and still ended up as an embarrassment. Critics
sneered at the video, in which a group of Ukrainians who will help
host the championship are shown learning English and making a
blatant grammar error.
Ukraine has already gotten some bed press. UEFA President Michel
Platini has complained of hotel price gouging and called on the
government to stop ”bandits and crooks” from ripping off
Even a humorous TV ad in the Netherlands has caused controversy
over Euro 2012.
A Dutch energy company recently aired an ad that advises women
to keep their husbands from attending the Euro 2012 because they
are likely to be seduced by Ukraine’s attractive women. Kiev
protested the ad as ”humiliating and discriminatory.”
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw.