A victory for ordinary Ukrainians Government likely to claim Euro 2012 glory but real plaudits belong to Ukrainian public
Euro 2012 was supposed to be the moment when Ukraine finally entered the European mainstream. Instead, as the tournament approached the country’s political leadership found itself in ever greater international isolation, shunned for its treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and scolded for its democracy shortcomings. European leaders lined up to declare that they would be boycotting Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine as what had once seemed like a fantastic PR opportunity fast threatened to become a source of national embarrassment.
Faced with this unfavourable geopolitical backdrop, ordinary Ukrainians seem to have collectively risen to the challenge and taken it upon themselves to make sure that Euro 2012 would be a grassroots success. Over the past four weeks thousands have served as unpaid volunteers in Ukraine’s host cities, while throughout the country Euro supporters have received a traditionally warm Ukrainian welcome wherever they have gone. The end result has been endless gushing testimonials as visiting fans have moved beyond the politics and encountered the real Ukraine.
Nevertheless, it remains likely that the current authorities will attempt to use the success of Euro 2012 as a platform for the forthcoming Ukrainian parliamentary elections this autumn. While domestic audiences may well prove susceptible to the kind of ‘deeds not words’ rhetoric which is likely to accompany the government’s Euro 2012 bandwagon, the broadly positive impression created by the championships is not expected to make much difference to the Yanukovych administration’s international standing, which will remain dependent on its democracy shortcomings.
Euro preparations overshadowed by negative press
The international media build-up to the European Championships in Ukraine could hardly have been any worse. Reports across the continent throughout spring 2012 focused on a plethora of security threats and inadequacies which collectively painted a very negative picture of modern Ukraine and led many to resurrect old doubts about the wisdom of having awarded Euro 2012 to Ukraine in the first place. The list of negative themes seemed inexhaustible: pot-holed roads, poor English language skills, unfinished accommodation, overpriced hotels, a thriving sex industry, xenophobic football hooligans and stray dogs all received headline coverage, while columnists across the continent debated the morality of visiting a land governed by an authoritarian regime which appeared unwilling to shake off its Soviet past and which stood accused of incarcerating the diminutive and photogenic Yulia Tymoshenko as a political prisoner.
Fan fiesta lifts media gloom
The steady flow of negative stories did much to dampen expectations in Ukraine itself, with many speculating that relatively few foreign fans would take the risk of visiting Ukraine given all the bad things they had heard about the country. In fact, they needn’t have worried. This mood of gloom disappeared almost overnight when the first fans began filtering into Ukraine’s four host cities. With the big kick-off just hours away, central Kyiv was taken over by an army of colourful Swedes, while the Germans swamped Lviv and the Dutch painted Kharkiv orange. A combination of football fever, gorgeous sunshine and cheap beer soon generated a carnival atmosphere in Ukraine’s fanzones which was to remain in place for much of the tournament.
Euro 2012 volunteers: modern Ukrainian heroes
This friendly ambience was further fostered by the tireless work of thousands of unpaid Ukrainian volunteers who gave their time and energy in order to make sure visiting fans felt at home and received all the everyday help that they required. The bulk of these volunteers were student age and 20-something Ukrainians eager to see their country portrayed in the best possible light and also hungry for the kind of international interaction which remains illusive for many of their generation.
Some said they volunteered partly in a bid to improve their English language ability via four weeks of intensive practice, others in the hope of learning new professional skills from their involvement in the organisation of such a large-scale event. As well as large groups of volunteers such as ‘Friendly Ukraine’, Euro 2012 also witnessed the appearance of all manner of freelance volunteer services, with individual Ukrainians and small groups of activists setting up websites offering free accommodation and a wide range of other free online services for visiting Euro fans. This army of volunteers remains largely anonymous, but they are genuine Ukrainian heroes nonetheless.
No need for supporter segregation in Ukraine
The festive mood which has characterized Ukraine’s Euro 2012 experience has been the key to the success of the championships in the former Soviet republic. There has been almost no fighting at any of the country’s four fanzones despite the daily consumption of prodigious quantities of beer. Fans have mingled freely and amid much joviality both before and after every single Euro 2012 match hosted in Ukraine – a state of affairs which would have been considered incredible just a decade ago and which did not prove possible for all of the matches played in Euro 2012 co-host nation Poland. Instead of the ever-present threat of hooligan violence, Ukraine’s fanzones were closer in atmosphere to all-day football-themed nightclubs.
The love-in extended to Ukraine’s Euro 2012 stadiums, where rival fans typically sat intermingled without any segregation. England fans in particular spoke of their admiration for the good nature and sportsmanship exhibited by Ukraine fans who sat among them during the decisive final group stage between the two nations. “We’d just knocked them out of the competition and all they wanted to do was shake my hand,” recounted one incredulous England fan. Credit for this friendly ambience must go to the tens of thousands of everyday Ukrainians – volunteers, service sector workers and ordinary folk in general – who set the tone with their big welcomes and general helpfulness.
Diplomatic praise for co-host efforts
The positive vibes generated by Euro 2012 succeeded in producing a minor – albeit localized - thaw in the diplomatic cold front currently confronting Ukraine. Before the championships had begun, German and the UK had taken leading roles within the EU in the push to punish Ukraine for its democracy backsliding by boycotting Euro 2012. However, within a week of the big Euro kick-off, German Ambassador to Ukraine Hans-Jurgen Heimsoeth felt moved to issue a rare positive commentary highlighting the positive impression made by Lviv on visiting German fans. His Excellency wrote that Lviv had been so friendly and open that many German fans had decided to stay on in the city longer than they had initially planned. Meanwhile, UK Ambassador Leigh Turner also blogged positively about the England experience in Donetsk. As the tournament wore on, even former boycott champion Angela Merkel said that she would consider coming to Ukraine if the German national team made it to the final in Kyiv.
This relative praise for Ukraine’s Euro 2012 efforts has been mirrored in international press reports from correspondents who have also found that Ukraine in June is a surprisingly pleasant place to be. However, what unites these positive appraisals is an absence of any official credit for Ukraine’s authorities – instead, international politicians and commentators alike have reserved their praise for ordinary Ukrainians, lavishing them with compliments for everything from their warm hospitality to their delicious cuisine.
President Yanukovych keeps low Euro profile
This international focus on ordinary Ukrainians is likely to be interpreted as a calculated snub by the Yanukovych administration, but it will not stop them from attempting to capitalise on the success of Euro 2012 as they look to consolidate their grip on power in the forthcoming parliament elections this October. However, there was little sign of this opportunism during the tournament itself, where President Yanukovych chose to forego the standard stadium announcements of his presence and remain incognito while attending matches in what was an apparently direct violation of official protocol. Some have suggested that this modest step was in fact a sensible precaution to avoid the spectacle of the head of state being publicly jeered – an all-too-realistic proposition which reflects the troubling climate currently dominating Ukraine’s political landscape. Whatever his motives for keeping a low profile during Euro 2012, there is no doubt that President Yanukovych deliberately stayed away from the headlines throughout the tournament, restricting himself to some fan interaction on his home turf in Donetsk.
Euro 2012 and Ukraine’s parliamentary elections
In the coming months Euro 2012 will become just another political football in Ukraine’s rough and ready parliamentary cockpit. Its success will be lauded as evidence of the government’s reliability while opposition politicians will seek to draw attention to the murky world of Euro 2012 financing and the government’s role in handing out lucrative state contracts. Internationally, Euro 2012 will not succeed in altering the EU’s current tough stance, which will remain pegged to the Tymoshenko case and Ukraine’s broader democratic trajectory. However, thanks to Euro 2012 hundreds of thousands of Europeans now know a Ukraine which is totally at odds with the corrupt backwater conjured up by the negative coverage and lurid headlines the country regularly attracts. The big question now is how long it will take for the country’s politicians to catch up with the broadly and unmistakably European ambience of the country as a whole.
Nataliya Novakova is a senior foreign policy analyst at the Penta Center for Policy Studies