Euro 2012 going sour for Ukraine after great efforts

Thu, May 3, 2012, 01:00

Even from jail, Yulia Tymoshenko is causing trouble for the regime, writes Richard Balmforth in Kiev

IT WAS never meant to be like this. When, in 2009, Ukraine was named co-host of Europe’s biggest soccer feast, its leaders hailed the award as a milestone on the road to joining the European mainstream.

A delighted Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister, told her compatriots her government had scraped together “every kopeck” – the Ukrainian currency – to make the dream possible.

Her jubilant tone foresaw the former Soviet republic turning a confident, smiling face to the world in the month-long Euro 2012 soccer tournament which it will co-host with Poland. That was in December 2009.

Now, with the first games to be played in Ukraine on June 9th, Tymoshenko lies in prison on hunger strike, nursing bruises after what she said was a beating by prison guards. Images of her show her trademark peasant braids lying in a forlorn tress across her shoulder.

Western leaders, led by Germany, have called off scheduled visits to Ukraine in protest at the treatment meted out by president Viktor Yanukovich’s leadership.

Amid talk of a possible boycott of the June 8th ceremonial opening, Ukraine has accused European powers of resorting to cold war tactics. A series of mystery bomb blasts in the city of Dnipropetrovsk last week, which injured 30 people, have raised security concerns.

The trial and sentencing of Tymoshenko to seven years in jail for alleged abuse of power has already cost Ukraine a landmark political agreement with the European Union.

The 2004-2005 Orange Revolution street protests made the country many friends in the West, and it continued to bathe in the after-glow of that popularity long after the Orange leaders came to power, fell out among themselves and were voted out of office.

So for Ukraine a lot of the European reaction is unexpected and seems unfair – especially given its huge efforts to overhaul a ramshackle infrastructure in double-quick time and make it fit to host one of Europe’s biggest sporting events.

In less than two years, it has laid thousands of kilometres of new roads, built new airport terminals and laid on high-speed train services between Euro locations. Kiev’s Olympisky stadium, where the July 1st final will be played, has been revamped from the outdated Soviet relic that first opened in 1923.

Uefa president Michel Platini, who has toured Euro venues over the past two years and often chided Ukraine along the way, recognised the huge effort. “Bravo to all responsible for Ukraine’s preparations,” he said late last year, giving a thumbs-up.

Platini did, however, harangue the country over the sky-high prices of accommodation on offer to visiting fans. Ukraine’s hoteliers, he said, were “bandits and swindlers” for jacking up prices tenfold in the four host cities of Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk.

The Kiev government, which expects at least a million fans to visit, has sought to curb hoteliers with anti-trust investigations and a planned deal with a low-cost airline that officials say will offer $300 (€230) return trips from London.

All the same, there are signs that many fans are opting to stay at home and follow their national team’s fortunes on television rather than make the trek to Ukraine.

Yanukovich, a heavily built hard man who has run Ukraine since February 2010, after narrowly beating Tymoshenko for the presidency, may still hope the Euro competition will generate some joy amid mounting economic woes that threaten his party’s success in an end-of-year election.

But freeing Tymoshenko, his nemesis for years, still does not seem an option. The charismatic opposition politician threatened the interests of many of Ukraine’s oligarchs when she was in power. Sharp of tongue, she went out of her way to belittle Yanukovich in a later campaign for the presidency in 2010 – which she lost.

“It is personally difficult for him to release Tymoshenko,” said Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “One of the reasons is that he feels he will look weak at home.”

Tymoshenko seems able to create trouble for Yanukovich just by lying in prison. Kharkiv, where she is being held, will stage three matches in the Euro qualifying stages. With the city flooded with foreign journalists, the Yanukovich leadership is aware of the fertile PR ground she will be able to exploit without even stirring from her prison bed.

– (Reuters)