By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The June Euro 2012 football championship was Ukraine's chance to shine: forge closer ties with the West, boost its international standing and aid its struggling economy.
Instead, it's turned into a major headache.
In a move reminiscent of the Cold War, top EU officials have vowed to boycott matches held in Ukraine over the alleged mistreatment of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Critics warn that fans may be put off by exorbitant Ukrainian hotel prices and that the cash-strapped government has endangered the country by spending as much as $14 billion on the championship.
"This was a chance to show off the country because a thousand journalists will come here" said Oleh Rybachuk, a member of Tymoshenko's first Cabinet who has turned into a civic activist. "Now those thousand journalists will come and write about a million problems."
"The image, political and economic benefits — I don't see any," Rybachuk said.
Ukraine was awarded the Euro 2012 championship along with neighboring Poland in 2007 in a decision meant to reward and promote the two football-loving ex-Communist Eastern European countries, with Poland already a proud member of the EU and Ukraine aspiring to join. Back then, the Ukrainian economy was booming and the West was infatuated with the country after the 2004 pro-democracy mass protests known as the Orange Revolution brought to power a pro-Western government.
Ukraine is an entirely different story today.
Tymoshenko, the charismatic blond-braided Orange Revolution heroine and the top opposition leader, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office. Western countries decried the conviction last year as politically motivated persecution by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose fraud-tainted election victory Tymoshenko helped overthrow in 2004.
Tymoshenko on Wednesday ended a hunger strike she launched nearly three weeks ago after prison guards allegedly folded her in a bedsheet and punched her in the stomach, as she screamed for help. She was already suffering from debilitating back pain.
Photographs of large bruises on Tymoshenko's abdomen and arms released by the country's top human rights official, shocked the international community and prompted top EU officials, including European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the governments of Austria and Belgium to cancel plans to attend football matches in Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested she would only visit Ukraine during the championships if Tymoshenko's treatment improves.
"The lack of senior foreign officials attending the tournament is embarrassing for Yanukovych's government and will continue to generate bad press for the country," said Alex Brideau, a Ukraine analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that advises on geopolitical risk.
In a further embarrassment, Ukraine had to cancel a regional cooperation forum of central and eastern European states after more than a dozen leaders refused to attend over the Tymoshenko case.
Financially, the country is also in a bad shape.
The global financial crisis nearly destroyed Ukraine's economy, causing gross domestic product to plunge some 15 percent in 2009 and it has not fully recovered. A $15.6 billion rescue loan from the International Monetary Fund has been frozen for over a year due to Yanukovych's reluctance to carry out unpopular austerity measures.
In this situation many wonder if Ukraine can afford Euro 2012.
The government says it has spent some $4.3 billion (€3.3 billion) on building stadiums and upgrading roads and rail transport for the championship, but total figures that would include construction of government-subsidized hotels, promotional campaigns and staff training have not been released.
The Kiev-based consultancy Davinci Analytic Group estimates that Ukraine will spend a total of least $14 billion on hosting the championship, most of it coming from government coffers. The group estimates that up to $8 billion of that amount will not be returned in the medium term, as tourism is unlikely to significantly rise after the championship. Co-host Poland will spend even more — 95 billion zlotys ($29 billion, € 22 billion) on upgrading its infrastructure to host the event, according to official figures, but 40 percent of that will be covered by EU funds.