For Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it was supposed to be a moment of triumph. On July 1, Ukraine’s president hosts the final of the Euro 2012 soccer championship in Kiev’s impressively refurbished Olympic stadium. A special presidential “lodge” has been constructed for VIPs, with 54 seats reserved for European dignitaries and heads of state. The pitch is already perfect. All it lacks are the goalposts.
However, Yanukovych is likely to watch the final sitting on his own: over the past week EU leaders — led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel — have threatened to boycott next month’s event in protest at the persecution of the jailed opposition leader, former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was beaten in prison and is now on a hunger strike.
Not everyone in Kiev is convinced the EU leaders will stay away.
“I’m not bothered. I don’t think there will be a boycott,” said one resident, Konstantin.
His stall was busy selling Euro 2012 Poland-Ukraine T-shirts for 100 hyrvnia (US$13), as well as blue FC Kiev Dynamo scarves.
“Business is OK. We’ve had a few fans already,” he said.
At the stadium, a group of tourists were peering at the new membrane-covered roof. The 70,050-seat sporting arena was rebuilt to UEFA specifications at a cost of US$580 million. As well as the VIP lodge, the complex has been fitted with new changing rooms, elevators that work even if the power fails and seats painted in patriotic Ukrainian colors, a glorious oval of yellow and blue.
In the stadium’s museum are the two UEFA Cup Winners cups won by Dynamo Kiev, in 1975 and 1986. There are also photographs of the country’s soccer heroes: the grumpy legendary manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi, national coach Oleh Blokhin and former Chelsea player Andriy Shevchenko. One wall is plastered with black and white mugshots of Soviet-era teams. Next to the entrance, work was still going on with bulldozers demolishing the remnants of a shopping center on Thursday.
For Yanukovych, Euro 2012 was a unique opportunity to sell Ukraine to the world as a modern, peaceful, pluralistic, EU-aspiring nation, with a rich history and culture. Instead, his government is now staring at a public relations disaster.
The British government has yet to decide whether to send its ministers to watch England’s three group stage matches, all of which take place in Ukraine. Even the most diehard optimist accepts there is little prospect of Roy Hodgson’s England team reaching the Kiev final, to be played in a stadium built in 1923 and named after Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. (It was later re-named Red stadium, then named after former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.)
Yanukoyvch’s critics say the West has belatedly woken up to the ugly things happening in Ukraine since 2010. It was Yanukovych whose attempts to cheat during the country’s 2004 presidential election sparked the Orange Revolution. The eventual winner of the election was the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko. Tymoshenko was his Orange ally and became prime minister, but the two found it impossible to work together and in late 2005 Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko and her entire Cabinet and made a deal with Yanukovych.
She came back as prime minister two years later, but the Orange Revolution was to end in failure and recrimination, with its two main protagonists — the history fixated Yushchenko and the populist Tymoshenko — locked in a debilitating struggle.