May 18, 2012 5:18 pm by beyondbrics

By Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Sporting boycotts are back in fashion. Azerbaijan hosts the Eurovision Song Contest on 26 May, with Armenia predictably absent. Russia is beset by Circassian activists claiming that the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are desecrating their ancestral homeland. But Ukraine is on the receiving end of the bitterest current campaign, in the run-up to the European Championship football finals beginning on 8 June.

In 2007, when the tournament was awarded to Poland and Ukraine as co-hosts, the ‘Orange Revolution’ was only three years old. There was still hope that Ukraine would change for the better. Poland had joined the EU in 2004, Ukraine had not; but the tournament was supposed to symbolise common heritage and cooperation across the EU border, and an bright future for an ever-expanding Europe. (Though one reason why Ukraine and Poland got the nod was Italy’s match-fixing Calciopoli scandal the previous season).

But now the finals symbolise everything that is wrong with Ukraine. The ‘Orange’ era is long over and Yulia Tymoshenko, one of its leaders, is in prison after a show trial: she is in constant need of medical treatment for spinal problems and was briefly on hunger strike. Visiting journalists are queuing up to write the same story of ‘Poland good, Ukraine bad’. Corruption is rampant, including in the preparations for the tournament itself.

Here in the UK we are often cynical about our Olympics’ ‘legacy’ and ‘sustainability’. London 2012 is over-running its original budget of £9.3bn. But the Ukrainians (current GDP per capita about $7,200 a year  have spent even more – and they are only co-hosts. One investigation claimed a total cost of $14.5bn already back in 2011 – but nobody really knows how much. Kickbacks on most projects are allegedly as high as 40 per cent.

Ukraine has concentrated on mega-projects. Four shining new stadia have gone up in the host cities of Kiev, Lvov, Kharkov and Donetsk. Kiev’s new Olympic stadium cost an estimated $600m, half as much again as the Allianz Arena in Munich that will host the Champions’ League final this Saturday.

Infrastructure upgrades have concentrated on airports, which is sensible enough for Ukraine’s long-term business future, but ordinary Ukrainians don’t see the benefit.

The Ukrainian government hoped the finals would boost both the country’s image and FDI, but are getting the opposite after the Tymoshenko trial highlighted Ukraine’s lack of a rule of law.

Ukraine has always been an oligarchic state; now it often seems like a Mafia state. Corporate raiding is widespread. Ukraine’s hotel rates have been jacked up, way above any tournament ‘premium’; many have allegedly been penetrated by mafia interests to profit from a month’s price-gouging. But many fans will still live in tent cities, including the potential flashpoint of several thousand English fans camping outside the remote city of Donetsk.

So should anybody boycott the tournament? No one has mentioned bringing teams home. Moving games, or even just the final, to Poland seems impractical at this stage. Fewer foreign politicians in the posh seats is hardly a disaster. There is certainly no need to grant president Viktor Yanukovich and his ministers a handshake or photo-op. (His four-minute standing conversation with Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul this March was blown up in the Ukrainian media as the diplomatic triumph of the century).

The ‘Euros’ do matter, because they ought to show ordinary Ukrainians that a bit more Europe will improve their daily lives. The right to demonstrate has been whittled away over the last few years; Ukraine’s police, particularly the traffic police, are notoriously corrupt. If the Ukrainian authorities are suddenly a bit more hands off in June, the EU should press to ensure that improvements are maintained through to the key parliamentary elections in October and beyond.

But Ukraine’s problems go deep. The EU has more power than it thinks, and boycott is not the only weapon. A travel bans on officials linked to Tymoshenko’s jailing could rein in a few of Ukraine’s corrupt kleptocrats.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement are already agreed but not yet signed. They are rightly on hold until Ukraine’s political prosecutions come to an end.

And how will Ukraine’s team do?  They are held back by the aging star Andriy Shevchenko. Now 35, he understandably wants to bow out in a blaze of glory in front of his home fans; but the team as a whole has to slow down when he is up front.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

Related reading:
A tale of two countries, FT

Ukrayinska Dumka


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