A Host Unable to Kick Its Tattered Reputation

Elton John Pleads for Gay Tolerance at Concert

Kiev, Ukraine — There was an element of mercy in the final whistle of the Euro 2012 soccer championships on Sunday night, not for Italy, which was routed by Spain, but for Ukraine, a tournament co-host, which over four weeks of worldwide attention had its already flagging reputation battered even more.

Ukraine was once a darling of the West, with aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. But, for now, those hopes have been dashed, by economic turmoil after the 2008 crisis and, more recently, by a steady slide back into authoritarianism under President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

Even before the tournament started, a number of European countries and institutions had announced that they would boycott Ukraine over the continued imprisonment of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and leading rival of Mr. Yanukovich, on charges widely viewed as political.

Then, the BBC broadcast a documentary called “Stadiums of Hate,” describing virulent racism and anti-Semitism among some soccer fans in Ukraine and Poland, the other co-host of Euro 2012. It turned out to be just part of an avalanche of criticism.

The Ukraine-based activist group Femen, whose female members demonstrate topless against the exploitation of women, said the country was being turned into one large brothel. There were rampant allegations of corruption and cost overruns in the building of new stadiums, airport terminals and other infrastructure improvements. Fans making travel plans complained of price-gouging by hotels in Kiev, Ukraine’s elegant, cobblestoned capital.

The jabs kept coming, until the night before the final match when Elton John, headlining an outdoor rock concert in the sprawling Euro 2012 “Fan Zone” in downtown Kiev, paused his performance to plead with Ukrainians to stop beating up gay people, saying he was concerned about two recent attacks on gay rights leaders.

“It could have become a great celebration of sport,” Yevhenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of the jailed former prime minister, said in an interview, noting that her mother presided over many of the initial preparations for Euro 2012 as prime minister.

“This didn’t happen because of the isolation of Ukraine and the bad P.R. caused by the regime,” she said.

Citing the many logistical rather than political problems, Gavin Hamilton, in a blog post for World Soccer magazine, put it more succinctly: “Euro 2012 has been a wonderful tournament,” he wrote on Sunday, “especially if you have watched on TV.”

But, if playing host turned out to be a public relations disaster, some of the criticism seemed unfair. The only violence and racism reported during the tournament occurred in Poland, where Russian and Polish fans clashed on the streets of Warsaw and where Russian and Spanish fans, in separate incidents, were cited for chanting monkey sounds at black players.

Meanwhile, everyday Ukrainians rose up on their own to battle price-gauging by hotels, creating a Web site through which citizens offered free lodging in their homes to arriving fans.

But there is little doubt that Mr. Yanukovich’s government will remain under political pressure.

In a speech in May to Germany’s lower house of Parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel likened Ukraine to its authoritarian neighbor, Belarus. “In Ukraine, and in Belarus, people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression,” Ms. Merkel said.

Europe’s frustration largely stems from the case of Ms. Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost the presidential election in 2010 to Mr. Yanukovich and then was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 on charges generally viewed as politically motivated.

Three different cases have been brought against her, all involving old allegations that had been dismissed by prosecutors or the courts. She is detained in a hospital in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where she has been hospitalized for back problems, but supporters say she is still being denied proper medical care.

In the end, though, the effort by some European leaders to boycott in support of Ms. Tymoshenko gave way to the political imperative of supporting the national team. Both Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain and Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy attended the final in Kiev.

For regular Ukrainians, the tournament seemed to have its pluses and minuses.

The country reportedly spent more than $13 billion to prepare, or an average of nearly 2 percent of the total annual economic output over the last five years, with uncertain returns. Roads long pocked by potholes were repaved. English translations were added to announcements in the Kiev subway. New airport terminals were built.

Mr. Yanukovich’s government has rejected the corruption allegations, saying that public costs were less than $5 billion and that it can account for all of the money.

Three additional national holidays were declared, including two for the days that Ukraine’s team played in the tournament. (The team was eliminated early on.)

There was also the noise and revelry of the “Fan Zone” that occupied a nearly mile-long stretch of Khreshchatyk Street in the city center, including Independence Square, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied during the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Happy crowds thronged the zone, many wrapped in flags or with their faces painted in the red and yellow of Spain or the blue of Italy. Even before the final game started, there were reports that more than 200,000 liters of beer, or more than 50,000 gallons, had been served.

Igor Kanshin, a 59-year-old geography teacher, expressed annoyance that 3,000 Swedish fans had camped on a local island that serves as a popular park and beach and had left behind “an ugly garbage heap.”

Still, Mr. Kanshin said he thought the tournament over all was a good thing and that visitors would leave with a positive impression. “I think every foreigner who visited Ukraine discovered Ukraine for himself,” he said. “Kiev has never seen such an amount of foreigners.”

At a news conference on Sunday, Mr. Yanukovich declared the tournament a success. He appeared with President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland, whose country is already a member of NATO and the European Union, with a thriving economy.

Mr. Komorowski said he hoped Ukraine would follow Poland’s path. “Forward, Ukraine,” he declared. “To me, it means that Ukraine should consistently move toward European integration and move toward integration with the West.”

Elton John, taking a break from Saturday’s concert, urged a more basic step. “Recently, I read about violence against gay people in Ukraine; beating up gay people is wrong,” he said. “I plead with you: stop the violence against gay people.”

by David M. Herszenhorn
Source – The New York Times