[Originally published at our partner site, The Mantle.]
By Ed Hancox
One popular way for developing nations to announce to the world that they have made it onto the global stage in the early 21st century is to host a major international sporting event: From China's Beijing Olympics in 2008, to Russia's upcoming Winter Games in 2014, South Africa's World Cup stewardship in 2010 and Brazil's double coup of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics; staging a spectacle of this magnitude is a clear signal to the world that you are now a country of note. This was certainly the motivation for Poland and Ukraine's joint bid to host the Euro 2012 soccer championships this month. But the event that was supposed to be a measure of Ukraine's post-Soviet development is instead highlighting a host of national shortcomings from virulent racism to an oppressive, dysfunctional political system.
Racism has long been a stain on the European quasi-religion of football. Racist taunts and gestures aimed at non-white players are all too common at football matches; there have even been instances of rowdy fans throwing bananas onto the field at players of African descent. But according to a recent piece in the New York Times, that racism is perceived to be more virulent in the football stadiums of Eastern Europe, where fans have also been known to throw Nazi-style salutes and chants of “Sieg Heil!” at non-white players. The concern over racism at Euro 2012 was stoked when the BBC's Panorama documentary series did a report on racist incidents at football matches across Eastern Europe including video from a recent Premier League match in Ukraine that showed Ukrainian fans savagely beating a group of Indian spectators. The racism issue seemed to hit a crescendo last week when the families of two black players on England's national team publicly announced they would not be attending matches in Ukraine over concerns for their safety. Ashley Walcott, the brother of English player Theo Walcott announced via Twitter that the Walcott family would be skipping matches in Ukraine: “because of the fear of possible racist attacks/confrontation. Some things aren’t worth risking.” Walcott's statement was echoed by former English defender Sol Campbell, another black player, who after watching the Panorama footage urged English fans to “stay at home, watch it on TV. Don't even risk it… because you could end up coming back in a coffin,” Campbell said on the BBC. Italy's star striker Mario Balotelli, the son of immigrants from Ghana, added to the litany, saying that he would walk off the pitch during Euro 2012 if he heard any racist taunts from the crowd; Balotelli also said that he had once had bananas thrown at him in a bar in Rome.
When Ukraine was named co-host of Euro 2012 the country was on a trajectory of integration with Europe under pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko; today Ukraine is led by his opponent, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich who, critics claim, is engaging in some of the same oppressive tactics Russia's Vladimir Putin is often accused of employing. Ukrainian politics suffered a black eye in late May when lawmakers brawled on the floor of parliament over a bill to allow the official use of the Russian language in government facilities, a bill backed by Yanukovich's political faction. One lawmaker was sent to the hospital.
The fight highlights a deep division within Ukraine, where the industrial southeastern part of the country is dominated by ethnic Russians (Yanukovich's power base), while ethnic Ukrainians who want to leave their Soviet past behind and integrate with the European community are the majority in the western part of the country. Tensions are now being further stoked by a Russian movie called Match, which depicts a WWII-era soccer match in Nazi-occupied Ukraine that pitted a group of Soviet players against a Nazi team; according to the story, several members of the Soviet side were executed after failing to throw the game as they had been ordered to by the Nazis. The release date of the film is clearly designed to capitalize on the attention being drawn by Euro 2012, but some ethnic Ukrainians are outraged at the depiction of a number of Ukrainian characters as cowards and Nazi sympathizers in the Russian-made film.
And there's the case of Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine's former prime minister, and Yushchenko's partner in Ukraine's reformist Orange Revolution, is now languishing in a Ukrainian prison after being convicted on charges of corruption and abuse of office dating back to her tenure as prime minister. Tymoshenko was convicted of illegally diverting funds as prime minister from a greenhouse gas abatement fund; prosecutors are now drawing up a new set of charges for tax evasion dating back to the 1990s when Tymoshenko made her fortune while operating a natural gas pipeline network in Ukraine. Critics are drawing a direct parallel between Tymoshenko's case and that of jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – stating that Yanukovich has taken a page directly from the Putin playbook and used the legal system to dispatch his strongest political rival. The Ukrainian government's position isn't helped by repeated claims from Tymoshenko that she has been mistreated in prison. The former Prime Minster is alleging that she has been beaten by her guards (a recent photograph showed bruising to Tymoshenko's arms) and that a long-standing medical condition with her back has not been properly treated, leaving Tymoshenko bed-ridden. European political figures, including Germany's Angela Merkel, have suggested they may skip the Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine in protest over Tymoshenko's imprisonment and treatment.
Other issues are dogging Ukraine's Euro 2012 hosting duties: some fans are accusing hotels in Ukraine of charging exorbitant rates for rooms during the tournament; women's rights groups allege that there has been a spike in human trafficking as girls are being brought it to meet the expected extra demand in Ukraine's brothels from the tens of thousands of football fans flooding into the country; some Ukrainians complain that their economically-depressed country has spent billions of dollars building football stadia across the nation, and there's the strange case of bombs left in trash bins around the city of Dnipropetrovsk, which is scheduled to be one of the Euro 2012 host cities.
Euro 2012 was supposed to be a bold opportunity for Ukraine to show that it had shed its Soviet past and was boldly taking its place among the European community of nations. Instead the tournament threatens to show off the underbelly of a land still very much in a time of transition.
Ed Hancox is the managing editor of The Mantle. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia’s transition from Communism.
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