KIEV, Ukraine — Europe’s 2012 soccer championship, which began Friday, was supposed to be co-host Ukraine’s moment to step into the spotlight, to show that it had finally arrived as a proud, democratic and modern member of the European community.
That’s not how it’s turning out. Sweetheart contracts and rampant graft have sent expenditures through the roof. Hotels are gouging. Gleaming new trains capable of high speed are hobbled by rickety tracks. Five of the seven foreign teams that are playing in Ukraine in the first round are staying at hotels in Poland, the other tournament host, and only flying in for the games.
While members of parliament engage in fistfights over the status of the Russian language, the British press has been warning people of color that they face racist attacks if they come here. None of the games has sold out so far. And European leaders are boycotting Ukraine over the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“We have this awkward situation where the image is deteriorating all the time,” said Oleksandra Betliy, who works at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here. “We won’t receive the benefits we wanted.”
Blame for Ukraine’s impending black eye lies largely with the government of President Viktor Yanukovych — corrupt, vindictive toward political opponents and increasingly isolated from the country it runs, its critics say. It has been going easy on repression recently, perhaps to buff up its image, and it did, at the last minute, manage to get new stadiums and airport terminals built and highways repaved. But even if the games themselves are a success in the end, they’re not likely to mark a turning point in Ukraine’s evolution.
“Ukraine lost the chance to present itself as a European country,” said Arkadiy Bushchenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
Not so, countered Anatoly Holubchenko, in charge of Kiev’s preparations. (The other participating cities are Donetsk and Kharkiv, in the Russian-speaking east, and Lviv in western Ukraine.) “I think that we have integrated very deeply into Europe,” he said, “and soon Europeans will say, ‘Ukraine is ours! Surely, it is ours!’ ”
He said the city of Kiev, with help from the central government, spent about $700 million getting ready for the month-long tournament — and that doesn’t count the cost of its new stadium, reportedly also running at up to $700 million. Or the new airport terminals.
But fans arriving from abroad are expected to spend only $300 million to $400 million, Betliy said — and that’s for all of Ukraine. Part of the problem is that soccer fans aren’t necessarily big spenders. Holubchenko boasted that 30,000 Swedes are expected. But a large number of them will be camping on an island in the Dnieper River.
The tourist infrastructure, in any case, is still woefully lacking. Pavel Babenko, who runs a citizen monitoring group that tracks the preparations, said that the tournament and the crowds it draws may help Ukrainian leaders finally recognize how much more needs to be done. Part of it is a change in attitude: Ukraine’s children’s ombudsman didn’t help matters when he warned parents to send their kids out of Kiev and the other cities for the month of June so they wouldn’t be attacked by foreign pedophiles.
Ukraine and Poland were awarded the 2012 games in 2007, when all of Europe, east and west, was on the upswing. In that year, both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko had stints as prime minister, and both claimed credit for what seemed like a triumph. Then for the next three years, with the global economy in tatters and the country falling into political crisis, Ukraine did practically nothing to get ready.
In 2010, Yanukovych was elected president, and soon he turned his prosecutors loose on Tymoshenko and other former top officials. Corruption, never modest, blossomed. With two years to go and no time to waste, he put the soccer preparations on a fast track. The original idea was that private investment would pick up 80 percent of the cost, but red tape and demands for bribes discouraged developers, so the government stepped in.
Nobody really knows how much money has been spent, how much stolen and how much kicked back.
There have been plenty of stories about graft in the press, but they don’t lead to anything. “Corruption fatigue,” said Igor Burakovsky, who runs the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting. “There’s a lot of information out there. You have to ignore it eventually, or you’ll go crazy.”
Some companies, and some oligarchs, have made out well, he said. But the country can never make all that money — perhaps as much as $12 billion — back.
“It’s entertainment paid for by Ukrainian taxpayers,” he said.
The highways and airports are useful investments. The stadiums, Betliy said, are unlikely ever to pay their way. During the hurry-up construction of the new arena in Kiev, at least six workers were killed. Many workers, recruited from elsewhere in the country, were cheated of their pay, according to the Kyiv Post.
The most damaging self-inflicted wound, though, is the hounding of Yanukovych’s political rival and former star of the 2004 Orange Revolution. “All the people of Europe,” Babenko said, “look at Ukraine through the Tymoshenko case.”
Convicted of abuse of power and facing other charges, Tymoshenko, 51, is under guard in a hospital in Kharkiv — where Denmark plays the Netherlands on Saturday. Her prosecution has been denounced by the European Union and the United States as politically motivated.
Top French and British officials are among European politicians staying away because of the case. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she will wait until the last minute to decide about going.
Tymoshenko’s daughter, Yevhenia, 31, said she hopes the tournament will make Europeans more aware of Ukraine’s political situation. “We hoped this would be a celebration of sport,” she said. “But the regime has crossed the line.”
Freedom House has identified Ukraine as one of two countries that is becoming decidedly less democratic. The other is Hungary. A new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace views Ukraine as an economic underachiever, without a suitable foundation for future growth. Amnesty International has launched a publicity campaign to bring attention to police abuses in Ukraine.
“Criminal behavior is the norm” within the police, said Max Tucker, who is running the campaign. “I’d go so far as to say that the police here are out of control.”
The organization has collected harrowing stories of police torture and deaths in detention. Antipathy toward the police is rampant among Ukrainians, Tucker said — and Amnesty plans to be present at every soccer game, handing out literature, collecting signatures and trying to shame the regime before hordes of European visitors.
The police, in fact, may be a bigger threat to ethnic minorities than nationalist skinheads. Africans report that they are regularly shaken down for bribes. Last week, police cleared a camp of Roma in Kiev and then burned it to the ground. They’ve also been rounding up beggars and homeless people in advance of the games.
“Maybe I would refrain from visiting a country that behaves that way toward its own citizens,” said Bushchenko, of the Helsinki group.