Dec 7, 2013
Eastern Europe’s Coming-Out Party
Posted on Jul 5, 2012
By Ivo Mijnssen
Nevertheless, the new roads, high speed trains, airports and stadiums were all ready for the European soccer championship, and tourists experienced very few transportation or housing problems during their stay. In Kiev, Lviv and Kharkiv, the organizers established well-functioning tent cities for tens of thousands of Swedish, Danish, German and Dutch fans. In Donetsk, the situation was slightly more problematic, and the local authorities were forced to house some fans in schools and stadiums. These complications were perhaps one reason why many seats stayed empty during the games there.
The feared violence also did not materialize. With the exception of clashes between Russian and Polish soccer hooligans before and after the game between the two rivals and racist chants by Russian and Spanish fans in Poland, no major incidents were reported. Some inhabitants of Kiev reported some unpleasant encounters with inebriated British fans, and we witnessed British attempts to rush the pitch during the Sweden-England games, which the security guards stopped resolutely by throwing the fans back into the ranks head first. These kind of isolated incidents were nothing extraordinary for a European Cup.
Most foreigners experienced Ukrainians as open-minded, hospitable and helpful. The Ukrainian magazine Korrespondent wrote that since 77 percent of Ukrainians have never been abroad, for financial reason and the overwhelming difficulty of receiving a visa for Western countries, the European Cup was “their own window to the world” for many. Thousands of young Kievans acted as volunteers in the city center to distribute guidebooks and answer foreigners’ questions. Many of them, however, stood idly because the city had already done a very good job of distributing English language signs in the metro and on maps in central places.
The question that remains, then, is the extent to which the Euro 2012 will benefit Ukraine in the long term. Korrespondent claims that Ukraine’s development leaped ahead by 30 years, perhaps an overoptimistic assessment. The investments could also prove to become a major burden. The International Monetary Fund had to rescue Ukraine in 2009 with a $15.6 billion bailout, but much of this money is currently blocked because of disagreements over the reform process in the country. Nonetheless, the government is considering applying for more IMF money in 2013. The economy remains vulnerable to external shocks, and international investors hesitate to commit to the country because of its unstable political and economic situation.
In spite of these impressive numbers, one has to ask whether investment in expensive stadiums, the long-term usefulness of which remains unclear, is really the most effective path to economic development for a poor nation like Ukraine. Moreover, it will remain to be seen whether the number of tourists in Ukraine will really grow in the future and render the many expensive new airport terminals and hotels profitable.
Beyond dispute is the fact that Euro 2012 considerably improved Ukraine’s image in the world, as many people traveled to the country who never would have done so were they not attending the tournament. This encounter contributed to easing some of the stereotypes that still exist on both sides of the former iron curtain. Many Ukrainians I spoke to also felt a sense of pride in their battered country. As Igor, the taxi driver who brought us to the airport, said: “We Ukrainians proved to the world that we could pull this off.”
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