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Ukraine’s European Aspirations Meet the Buzz Saw of Post-Soviet Habits

The country’s aim to host Euro 2012 in order to demonstrate its “Europeaness” got hijacked along the way.

by Yegor Vasylyev 8 June 2012

KYIV | When they bid to co-host the Euro 2012 soccer championship in 2005, Ukraine and Poland said they were seeking to promote their European identity, renewed after decades of totalitarianism.

 

As the tournament opens today, that goal is manifestly closer for Poland, an EU member lauded for its democratic development and economic reforms, than for Ukraine, a semi-authoritarian state whose hosted matches are at the center of a boycott debate.

 

Ukraine sets out its tourism stall at the newly rebuilt Olympic Stadium in Kyiv. Photo from ukraine2012.gov.ua.

 

Preparations in Ukraine have also been marred by construction glitches, sky-high hotel prices, and reports of pervasive corruption.

 

Were the hopes of showcasing Ukraine’s Europeaness a pipe dream from the start?

 

THE EARLY DAYS

 

The bid itself surprised many. Adam Olkovicz, director of the organizing committee for Euro 2012 in Poland, said in 2008 that the Polish soccer federation had been shocked by the Ukrainians’ proposal to co-host the championship. It was Ukraine, a country stuck in a halting transition, that initiated the bid. Leonid Kuchma and Aleksander Kwasniewski – then the respective Ukrainian and Polish presidents – had strong personal relations, and the idea received full support at the highest levels.

 

Hryhoriy Surkis
The initiative started with Hryhoriy Surkis, president of the Football Federation of Ukraine since 2000. Surkis is known not only as a keen soccer fan but also as a powerful businessman and politician. A former Soviet engineer and an official in the Kyiv city government, he earned a fortune in the early post-Soviet years and is among a group of businessman popularly dubbed the Magnificent Seven. The group included his business partners: brother and current Dynamo Kyiv soccer team President Ihor Surkis; a lawyer and former Soviet public defender, Viktor Medvedchuk; and a Soviet-era official in the Kyiv city government, Valentyn Zgurskiy.

 

The group, with vast interests in industry, trade, and energy production, enjoyed good relations with the first Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, and his successor, Kuchma. The bonds grew stronger in Kuchma’s second term, from 1999 to January 2005, when Medvedchuk became a top presidential aide.

 

The Surkis brothers are closely associated with the renowned Dynamo Kyiv soccer team, which they essentially privatized at a knock-down price in 1993 when the then-publicly-owned team was supposedly near bankruptcy. They wooed back manager Valery Lobanovsky, who had led the team to glory in the 1970s and who once again took it to the top of European soccer. Riding that success, the Social Democratic Party led by Surkis, Kravchuk, and Medvedchuk entered parliament in 1998.

 

Looking back, 2003 turns out to have been the group’s high point. Their political prospects seemed bright: amid dimming hopes for Kuchma’s popular re-election, Medvedchuk drafted a change to the constitution to move the presidential election from the ballot box to parliament, where Kuchma enjoyed wide support.

 

It seemed the dawn of a promising era, and the Euro 2012 bid looked like a worthy goal to chase.

 

A TURN WEST, A WINNING BID

 

But even notwithstanding the technical requirements of the event organizer, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), at the time the bid would hardly have attracted any outside support. By 2004, Ukraine was constantly lambasted internationally for its undemocratic practices, and yellow-carded by the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog. Kuchma faced de facto political isolation from the West.

 

Then came the 2004 presidential elections, and the bid received a sudden boost for reasons Surkis might prefer to forget.

 

Efforts to rewrite the constitution had failed, but Surkis gleefully celebrated the announcement of the rigged results at the Central Election Commission in November. In typical soccer fashion, wearing a scarf in the colors of his favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, Surkis clapped, chanted, and greeted the happy crowds. But the win was canceled by the Supreme Court essentially on the grounds of unfair play.

 

A December rerun ushered in the opposition team of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko amid the so-called Orange Revolution that swept Ukraine from November 2004 to January 2005.

 

Allegations of conflicts of interest, put forward by the country’s new leaders, threatened to unseat Surkis in the Football Federation. But he survived, probably because he had become inextricably linked to the Euro 2012 bid, which was supposed to help change Ukraine’s image from that of a gray, “semi-Russian” backwater to a country that shared European values and strove for democracy. The bid was eagerly supported by the newly elected, pro-Western president and the Orange team.

 

Thus, 18 April 2007 found Surkis celebrating again, this time among his political opponents, when UEFA President Michel Platini announced that Ukraine and Poland would host Euro 2012.

 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

 

The five years of preparations were a time of worry for many, including UEFA officials and ordinary fans, but a boom for others.

 

In 2007 the UEFA decision received overwhelming support from the Ukrainian public, dreaming of a European breakthrough for the country. They were told to expect ultramodern stadiums, investments galore, a nationwide infrastructure overhaul, armies of tourists, and thousands of new jobs.

 

Officials pledged that 80 percent of the tournament’s costs would be covered by private funds and that roads and railways would meet European standards.

 

As the tournament begins, it is obvious that only stadiums and airports (neither used by most Ukrainians) will live up to the initial hype.

 

Overall expenses have reached 109 billion hryvnia ($13.5 billion) half of which, according to a respected independent watchdog, came from the government, and 51 billion of which came from unspecified sources. A ruling party lawmaker quoted by Radio Svoboda estimates the government’s share in overall spending to be as high as 80 percent.

 

Roads, notoriously symbolic of Ukraine’s difficulties, were to get a face-lift, for which about $2.5 billion of government funds was set aside in 2011 alone. But as the Kyiv Post has reported, Ukraine is spending as much as two or three times the cost of comparable road projects in the United States. As a result, that $2.5 billion paid for work on only 2 percent of the country’s roads.

 

Efforts at rail modernization also had mixed results. A promised express to Boryspil airport in Kyiv has been postponed. Many sleeping cars, a staple of the most popular routes between the biggest cities, were retired. New Hyundai and Skoda trains were bought by the government and took their first journeys only weeks before the start of the championship. They seem to have bested the abandoned sleepers only in ticket price, with journeys costing as much as three times more.

 

Fans and tourists will come, of course, but far fewer than initially expected. Ukraine has never been a top tourist destination, but hotel owners still have gone crazy with prices. In the industrial eastern city of Donetsk, which will host five games, a single bed in a six-bed male dormitory room at a hostel is offered for 197 euros ($248), and a one-bedroom apartment in the city center goes for 562 euros – per night. The alternative is a temporary campsite on the outskirts, where a two-bed tent-pavilion with shared shower and toilet costs 41 euros.

 

Only weeks ago, Welt online reported long waits at the border, bribe-taking customs officers, and a lack of tourist information in the cities. It’s little wonder that tickets for most games in Ukraine are still in wide supply – the English Football Association has sent back to UEFA thousands of unsold tickets for England’s two games in Donetsk.

 

2007-2010: TUSSLES AND DELAYS

 

The pitfalls in the preparations were linked to the dysfunction in the country’s political and business spheres.

 

The Orange team celebrated the UEFA’s decision but dropped the ball on preparing for the championship. Apart from new stadiums in Donetsk and Kharkiv, sponsored fully or partially by local soccer teams’ owners, not much got done from 2007 to 2010. Tenders for the new stadiums and airports in Kyiv and Lviv were mired in scandals, with initial winners forced to abandon their bids. Works in other sectors had barely started. 

 

The reasons were typical for the period. Various business-political groups fought for access to state funds and contracts, while, with Tymoshenko and Yushchenko locked in a bitter rivalry, the country had no clear power center and little was accomplished – much to the frustration of the public and UEFA officials.

 

The tussles and delays brought speculation that Ukraine would lose hosting rights. Corruption rows followed, with people from different groups implicating one another. Yevhen Chervonenko, head of the Euro 2012 National Agency in 2007 and 2008, now blames other members of Yushchenko’s team and calls for them to be put on trial. Meanwhile, the Austrian company that won the initial tender on Lviv’s stadium, only to pull out of the project in 2008 and accuse the city’s mayor of welching on a debt, has won a prestigious award for the National Stadium in Warsaw, which it built in a consortium with Polish companies.

 

2010-2012: CLEARING THE LOGJAM

 

The Euro preparations changed after Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010. Borys Kolesnikov, a close friend of the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, was appointed deputy prime minister, responsible for the tournament’s infrastructure.

 

Delays were dealt with in a straightforward manner: officials dug deep into the public purse and awarded no-bid contracts. The rebuilt Olympic Stadium in Kyiv, scene of the final match on 1 July, reopened in October, and other key problematic projects – the Lviv stadium and new terminals at the Kyiv, Lviv, and Donetsk airports – were finished in time.

 

But these breakthroughs, for obvious reasons, smelled bad. According to investigations by Ukrainskaya Pravda, many of these contracts were awarded to one company, Altkom, which is majority-owned by a series of shell companies that the newspaper traced as far as Belize.

 

Nor are the new construction jobs an unalloyed success story. Construction workers at the Kyiv Olympic Stadium and nearby area live and work in atrocious conditions in barracks and say they are often stiffed on pay.

 

At the same time, promised community projects, like the railway express to Kyiv’s airport or introduction of a universal emergency phone number, have not materialized. Instead, millions of the public’s hryvnias went to finance helicopter landing pads (officially, to attract rich Ukrainians from the diaspora to visit the games) or, inexplicably, to “prepare the infrastructure at the Academy of the National Tax Service,” according to the Finance Ministry.

 

THE PUBLIC STEPS UP

 

Many Ukrainians seem ready to get involved in order to save the party and the reputation of their country.

 

When many fans began to rethink a trip to Ukraine in light of usurious hotel costs, some residents in host cities offered free accommodations in their homes. Others are eager to guide fans and tourists around their cities, interpret for them, or provide other help, free of charge. Websites for these citizen efforts have come together in an umbrella page on Facebook called Friendly Ukraine.

 

FARTHER FROM EUROPE

 

It is clear by now that the Euro 2012 soccer championship will be no European breakthrough for this post-Soviet country. Indeed, the opportunity was wasted on aims wholly unconnected with bringing the country closer to Europe. Intertwined business and political networks have enjoyed a bonanza of public spending. Ukraine has four new or rebuilt stadiums and airports, but politically it is farther from Europe than in 2007, as seen in the boycotts by Germany, France, and the UK.

 

Public initiatives, in a true European spirit, might counter the sordid political reality of the country, but they are no match for the post-Soviet standards in governance and politics, key to both the organization of sports tournaments and the country’s European prospects.
Yegor Vasylyev is an independent political analyst in Kyiv.
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