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

million problems.”

”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

geopolitical risk.

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 money?”

The top official in Ukraine from the Union of European Football

Associations disagrees.

”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

geopolitical project.”

”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.