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Eastern Europe’s Coming-Out Party

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Posted on Jul 5, 2012
AP/Vadim Ghirda

Lightning flashes over the stadium after bad weather caused suspension of the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group D match between Ukraine and France.

By Ivo Mijnssen

KIEV, Ukraine—Rarely have the organizers of a large sports event received as much scrutiny as Ukraine and Poland did ahead of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, which ended last week. Corruption, racist fans, police arbitrariness, violence, chaos and sheer incompetence were only some of the fears that the Western media, particularly in Britain, fanned consistently. Now that the games have drawn to a close, most fans and officials are looking back on a well-organized and overwhelmingly peaceful event, one that would not have proceeded any more smoothly had it been held in Western Europe.

Construction delays and political turmoil had led international observers to doubt the suitability of Ukraine as co-host of the games. Visitors to its capital Kiev, however, found themselves in a friendly host city with a well-functioning public transportation system and many interesting museums and monuments. Compared with my last visit five years ago, I found a city that had renovated its fin de siècle buildings in the municipal center, bought a whole fleet of modern buses for public transportation and built a palace to soccer—the beautiful new Olympic Stadium. Furthermore, the central Khreshchatyk Boulevard, normally traversed by tens of thousands of cars, became a big vehicle-free area for pedestrians and fans.

Not everyone in Kiev was overjoyed about this. Larissa Petrovna, who has lived here for four decades and does not like soccer, complained that Kiev’s residents had to spend hours in traffic jams trying to get to work and endure rude fans. The presence of UEFA, soccer’s European governing body, in the city was indeed overwhelming. A large, heavily guarded fan zone took up all of Independence Square and most of Khreshchatyk. Here, UEFA set the rules: No entrance before noon and no drinks allowed that were not provided by Carlsberg or Coca-Cola, the tournament’s official sponsors.

My friend Stefan Renner, a longtime soccer fan from Switzerland and critical observer of developments in the sport, disliked the fan zone: “I found it sterile and thoroughly commercialized. UEFA appropriates public space and subjects it to the rule of private corporations.” Others criticized the fact that UEFA, a nonprofit organization that pays no taxes, pockets billions in profits from tournaments like the Euro 2012 but takes no responsibility for the costs that the organizers have to bear. The many Swedish and British fans, dressed in their national colors, with their faces painted and beers in their hands, didn’t seem concerned with such political questions, however, as they enjoyed their peaceful soccer party.

Politics were nonetheless surprisingly present in the city center. Supporters of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in prison for almost a year as a result of an overtly politicized court trial, set up a tent city next to the fan zone. On stands with pictures of Tymoshenko, they accused Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich of authoritarianism and corruption and quoted Western statesmen’s condemnations of the trial. Many European heads of state canceled their trips to Ukraine to support their teams because of the trial. The government’s decision to leave the tent city throughout the tournament did much to weaken international criticism of Yanukovich’s increasingly authoritarian regime.


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Another political issue that stayed very much at the forefront of international and Ukrainian press coverage in Ukraine was allegations of corruption linked to the tournament. Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, occupying the 152nd place on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 183 nations in 2011. Ukraine’s investments for Euro 2012 were gigantic, particularly for a country that has verged on the edge of bankruptcy since the international financial crisis of 2009. Expenses ranged from $5 to $10 billion and were paid for almost entirely by the state, after original plans for a wide-ranging public-private partnership did not materialize. The first is the official number, the second is the sum quoted by Ostap Semerak, an opposition member of Ukraine’s parliament. He claims that state officials embezzled as much as $4 billion, an accusation that has led members of the European Parliament to demand an official investigation by UEFA. One example Semerak cites is the large cost for Kiev’s Olympic Stadium—estimated at almost $600 million and much higher than for comparable venues in Poland and Germany.

Volodymyr Artiukh, head of the general contractor for the stadium, AK Engineering, admitted in court June 6 that he helped embezzle $3 million intended for the venue’s modern vacuum toilet system imported from Germany. Independent Ukrainian journalists have linked various contractors to figures close to Yanukovich’s governing Party of Regions. Legal proof does not exist so far, as the companies’ true owners remain shrouded in mystery due to opaque offshore firms and the lack of will for a thorough investigation. What is clear, though, is that the process of awarding construction contracts was not transparent, starting with the Ukrainian government’s decision in 2010 to cancel all competitive bidding for Euro 2012 projects.

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