On the eve of the Euro 2012 football championships Ukraine is staring at nothing less than a full-blown PR disaster, writes Luke Harding.
Over the past two years, Ukraine has built two stadiums, opened four airports and unveiled a fleet of high-speed trains. It has spent £9.3-billion on preparations for the Euro 2012 football championships, a whopping sum for a small GDP country.
This week workmen were tidying up outside Kiev’s impressive web-roofed Olympic stadium, the venue for the July 1 final.
And yet on the eve of the tournament Ukraine is staring at nothing less than a full-blown PR disaster. In an interview with the BBC current affairs programme Panorama recently, the former England defender Sol Campbell bluntly said Uefa was wrong to give Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine because of their failure to get to grips with racism. He told fans: “Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk [going] ... you could end up coming back in a coffin.”
Campbell’s remarks come after the families of England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said they would not be attending England’s three group-stage matches in Ukraine because of the threat of violence and racist attacks.
The British Foreign Office advises travelling fans of African-Caribbean or Asian descent to take “extra care”. And the Football Association estimates that only 5 000 England fans will travel to Kiev and Donetsk. This compares with the 10 000 who visited South Africa in 2010 and the 100 000 who descended on Germany in 2006.
Others are queuing up to boycott too. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and assorted European Union chiefs are to shun Ukraine in protest at the treatment and imprisonment of the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who was beaten up in April while being transferred from prison to hospital.
Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych has so far obdurately refused to bow to EU pressure.
Uefa’s president Michael Platini, meanwhile, has complained of rip-off hotel prices in Ukraine, alleging “bandits and crooks” have muscled in. There is an acute shortage of hotel rooms in Donetsk, the gritty eastern mining town next to Russia where England will play France on June 11 and Ukraine on June 19. England have snubbed Donetsk’s world-class facilities to base in the Polish city of Krakow, offending many.
If this was not bad enough, on May 21 topless activists from the group Femen grabbed the championship trophy during its tour of Ukrainian cities; they claim the tournament will boost prostitution and the country’s already booming sex industry. The activist Inna Shevchenko yanked off her top to reveal the words “Fuck Euro 2012”.
So who is to blame for this mess? The answer, to a large extent, is Ukraine itself. Since the Soviet-style apparatchik Yanukovych became president in 2010, he has – as the think-tank Freedom House puts it – “revealed authoritarian tendencies”. These include the selective prosecution of opposition figures and a squeeze on independent media.
Lots of positives
Many of Ukraine’s problems pre-date Yanukovych; corruption was a feature of previous governments. But Yanukovych’s all-consuming desire to persecute Tymoshenko, his defeated rival, has united Brussels, Moscow and Berlin against him.
More than this, according to the football writer Mark Perryman, Ukraine has been slow to offer up an interesting narrative about itself. In reality, he says, the country has lots of positives: a football-orientated society; fans who drink a lot of beer; Kiev, “one of the great European cities”; and a noble footballing past, with Dynamo Kiev twice winners of the European Cup. One could also add an absence of interethnic conflict, and a rich literary heritage (Chekhov wrote some of his most famous work in Crimea and Bulgakov was born in Kiev).
Ukrainian officials feel they have been hard done by. “We prepared the country in two years. It was a hard job by 500000 people working every day,” Yuri Gromnytsky, from the Euro 2012 organising committee, said. “If some politicians are trying to put pressure on Ukraine it’s unfair.”
Gromnytsky insisted England fans would get a warm welcome in Donetsk. “Security will be OK. Our people have made all the preparations. They will see great pubs and an excellent stadium, one of the best in the world.”
Some observers believe the dangers of racism in Ukraine are overstated. Yuri Bender, a journalist who follows Ukrainian football closely, points out that the country’s two leading clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, both regularly field five or six black players in league and European matches. They are not subjected to abuse.
Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who financed the Donetsk stadium, is a Muslim. He has also built a new mosque in Donetsk. There are no recorded incidents of racist chanting directed at Akhmetov.
Bender argues that the situation in Poland – which has largely escaped media scrutiny – is far worse.
Bender said: “My wife, who is of Afro-Caribbean origin, and our two mixed-race children have accompanied me to Ukraine on several occasions, to Lviv in the West, Kiev in the centre and the Donbass region in the east. There has certainly been no abuse directed against them and in fact quite the opposite. The locals have gone out of their way to make them feel welcome in Ukraine.”
Bender said much of the reporting on the issue was “sensationalist”. And yet Panorama has filmed horrifyingly real footage of abuse at a Ukrainian stadium: fans attack a small group of Asian home supporters, punching and kicking them on the terraces, at one of the last league matches of the season. The Asians flee. The police are seemingly indifferent.
For all its democratic shortcomings, Ukraine is more plural and arguably less racist than Russia, which persuaded Fifa to award it the 2018 World Cup.
Uefa’s rationale for awarding the tournament to Ukraine and Poland was to show that the countries have changed after decades of dark Moscow rule. For sure, Poland is the EU’s star pupil. But Ukraine has clearly not changed, or not enough. The country’s current leadership remains intractably Soviet. And most fans will watch next week’s tournament from their sofas at home. – © Guardian News & Media 2012