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EURO 2012. Two Sides of the Same Coin

October 6, 2011 - Piotr Pogorzelski - Bez kategorii

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Four years ago, when Poland and Ukraine were awarded the right to organise EURO 2012, the government in Kyiv had big investment plans. Ukrainians were getting ready to speed along new highways and travel on modern trains. However, the revolution of modernisation did not live up to its dream.

EURO 2012 is just around the corner. Indeed, EURO 2012 has provided some impetus for Ukrainian cities, perhaps even significant change. However, in order to make any judgements one needs to look at the Ukrainian cities four years ago and now. Most visitors will not be able to make such comparisons, since their stay for EURO 2012 will probably be the first and last time in Ukraine. Furthermore, as Markiyan Lubkivsky, the Ukrainian head of the tournament, often stresses, preparations for EURO 2012 are a way to ensure that Ukrainians reach a standard of living similar to other European countries. In Ukraine, progress is still measured in small steps, such as posting a timetable at a bus stop. What is the norm in the West is still an exception in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. “EURO-renovation” is the new, hip term for renovation work, while ordinary plastic windows have been dubbed “EURO-windows”.

Progress, but not success

The streets of Lviv have been finally marked by street names in the Latin alphabet and by bilingual road signs. There is a lot of construction work in the city centre. A new airport terminal and a stadium are being built. And yet, the problem of public transportation has not been solved. To travel around one can take a slow tram, a trolley bus or a small marshrutki – small, private minibuses. The city is quite a challenge to any foreigner trying to figure out how to get around. All signs are in Ukrainian, the stops are hard to find and reliable timetables simply do not exist. Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, claims that the city is developing a transportation policy and that by the time football fans come to see the championships, there will be reliable timetables and normal bus and tram stops.

Donetsk (a city in Eastern Ukraine which will also host EURO 2012) is also undergoing changes. It has almost entirely banned marshrutki from the city centre. New trams and buses are now running along its main street – Artema. A new airport terminal is being built, roads have been repaired and the railway station has been modernised. Maksim Rovenskyi, the press secretary of the City Council, has told me that had it not been for EURO 2012 and the support of the central government, the city would not have been able to implement any of the projects.

At first glance, the city’s centre is impressive; rich, well-maintained and surprisingly clean. Only once in a while one can smell the fumes from the industrial plants nearby. Some even joke that the centre of the city could already join the European Union. The Donbass Arena is the pride of Donetsk. It was built and financed by Rinat Achmetov, considered to be one of the richest Ukrainians, who is a sponsor and a deputy of the Party of Regions. The stadium is clearly of the highest elite category. It resembles a UFO that has awkwardly landed on top of an industrial mine.

Kharkiv, another Ukrainian city to host EURO 2012, has also learnt the importance of local oligarchs. Its patron, Oleksandr Yaroslavskiy, is a businessman who ranks 15th on the list of the richest Ukrainians. Yaroslavskiy has financed the construction of Kharkiv airport and stadium. Kharkiv is the only Ukrainian city which can proudly admit to having the facilities that UEFA considers crucial for the championships. Kharkiv is also lucky to have an underground metro with three stations already located near the stadium. This is perhaps the one factor that makes the city’s transportation system slightly more manageable in terms of the coming championships, even though it is as poor as in any other Ukrainian city.

The transportation system is particularly bad in Kyiv. The city has an underground with one of the stations, Olimpiiska, located near the Olympic Stadium, a future host of EURO 2012 matches. The stadium is still being built, but its opening will take place in October and not August as earlier promised. The new airport terminal remains closed. Its expected completion date is constantly being pushed back.

The flip side of the coin

These aspects are just one side of the coin. The flip side is the one which the fans will not see. Let’s return to Kharkiv. The local stadium Metalist is located not far from the city centre. The arena is surrounded by blocks of flats and looks quite exotic; a pocket of luxury. Not to look too conspicuous against the background of the neighbouring blocks, their facades have been painted or big colourful club banners have been hung to cover the buildings. The fans coming to the matches will see many more of these Potemkin villages. The same trick has been used around the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv.

In Donetsk the stadium is also located in the city centre. The centre may be very impressive, but it is enough just to wander away a little bit to see rows of neglected houses without a sewage system. Denys ‘Frankensstein’ Kazansky, a famous Donetsk blogger, admits that the farther away from the main street, the worse Donetsk gets. Other cities like Gorlovka or Ukrainsk are even worse. They are still haunted by abandoned industrial plants and crumbling blocks of flats, the last remnants of the Soviet system. Kazansky says that the area is perfect for tourists who enjoy extreme vacations.

Pavlo Kolesnik, a journalist for the Komsomolskaya Pravda Donbass, a local newspaper, adds that the city is preparing for EURO 2012 without any consideration for the comfort level of its own residents. For example, to build the VIP terminal at the airport, the bus terminal had to be moved to the city outskirts. “Nothing for people”, says Pavlo Kolesnik. For him, EURO 2102 is mainly an opportunity for government officials to line their pockets. In Donetsk, the local government buys portable toilets for the price of a limousine, while in Kharkiv, the cost of new benches for the metro system was 63,000 hryvna (almost 6,000 euros) a piece.

Without a doubt this is corruption and someone is making big money here. There are many more cases like this all over the country, yet it is impossible to prove anything. Politicians are tight-lipped and keep all information secret,” says Zurab Alasania, journalist and owner of the Kharkiv information portal Mediaport. In his view, the preparations for EURO 2012 have only somewhat Europeanised Ukraine. In fact, what is happening now in the country fits into the same corruption patterns that have been seen in many other projects implemented thus far. And this goes beyond local investment projects. Economist Andriy Novak bluntly calls EURO 2012 the biggest corruption project in today’s Ukraine.

The media have brought some new, unpredicted expenditures that have appear out of nowhere to the publics’ attention. As an example, Vyacheslav Konovalov, from Europatrol, points to the access road from the airport in Lviv, which is above the level of the runway and needs to be lowered, obviously requiring additional funding. Another interesting example is Kaniov, a city 130 km away from Kyiv. In Kaniov, which is most known for being the location of the tomb of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Schevchenko, a construction of a landing space is under way. Interestingly, this construction is also considered a part of the EURO 2012 project. The government seems convinced that foreign football fans will be visiting the writer’s tomb. The common joke goes that when it comes to the Shevchenko family, it is Andriy, the footballer, and not Taras, who is famous. And then they add that the real reason for this landing area is probably the nearby forest – a hunters’ paradise.

Get it done

Are these facts surprising? According to public opinion polls, as many as 66% of Ukrainians fear that the public money allocated for the preparations of EURO 2012 will end up in the politicians’ pockets. It is not just Ukrainians who realise that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Every government speaks of the need to fight corruption but none has yet fulfilled its promise.

It seems that EURO 2012 has also allowed the introduction of some shady procedures. From the moment Poland and Ukraine were granted the right to co-organise the championships, the question most often asked was whether Ukraine would be able to build all of the stadiums and airports on time. On many occasions, the press warned that Ukraine may lose the right to organise EURO 2012 if it proved unable to build the necessary infrastructure on time. Ironically, these voices only encouraged Ukrainian officials to turn EURO 2012 into another goldmine of public money.

We don’t really care how they will do it, as long as they get it done”, said one of the high ranking Polish officials when I asked if she felt uncomfortable because of the unclear tender procedures during the preparations for EURO 2012. Such declarations, probably also heard during the talks between UEFA, Poland and Ukraine gave Ukrainian officials the green light. Tender bids with one participant are nothing unusual. Consent for such tenders is given by the Coordination Council on Preparation and Coordination of the Football Championship EURO 2012 in Ukraine, which is headed by Volodymyr Kovalevsky, an old acquaintance of the vice prime minister for EURO 2012 and Borys Kolesnikov, the minister of frastructure who is on the board of the Donbass Arena. Hence, the spectacular successes of a Donetsk-based company, Altkom, which is in charge of construction of the stadium and airport runway in Lviv, as well as the runway and a new airport terminal in Donetsk, cames as no surprise. The Coordination Council is also responsible for purchasing the not-so-cheap benches for the Kharkiv underground and the helicopter landing space in Kaniov.

In for a big surprise

Sums of public money were transferred to the cities organising the championships, putting the lower-ranking officials in a position to get their slice of the pie. Despite many construction work under way, roads remain Ukraine’s biggest pain. How can local governments make money here? Consider Kharkiv, where local politicians own private companies which produce asphalt used to pave the city streets. According to Zurab Alasania of Mediaport this situation also has two sides. “On the one hand, the problem of the shortage of asphalt has been solved. On the other hand, the public money goes straight into the politicians’ pockets”.

For the ruling Party of Regions, the championships are of great political significance. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2012, a few months after EURO 2012. EURO 2012 may turn out to be the government’s huge success or a grand failure. Until now, the opposition has remained silent on the topic of the preparations. Make no mistake. It is quite likely that next year every little pitfall connected with the organisation of the tournament will be pointed out. Alasania is convinced that “EURO 2012 is like a ‘circus’ which can divert Ukrainians’ attention from the rising prices of food and public services”.

EURO 2012 may become a great opportunity to change the negative image of Ukraine in Europe. According to GfK Ukraina opinion poll, as many as 40% of foreigners visiting the country are convinced that the money allocated for the organisation of the championships will be embezzled. The situation will not get better even with the media’s attempts to inform on unclear tender procedures. The advertisements on BBC, CNN or Eurosport, showing stunning views of Ukraine, including a digitally brushed up monument of Lenin in the centre of Kharkiv won’t help either.

Tourists are in for a big surprise. Especially those who will expand their routes beyond the recommended: airport-hotel-stadium. And there will be many surprises, starting with a ban on taking pictures in the underground to jam-packed trains during rush hour. Not to mention the chaotic city transportation system and the drivers’ disregard to road regulations. “I’m not asking you to go easy on us, but please keep in mind that for 74 years we lived in a country with a planned economy,” said Boris Kolesnikov, the vice prime minister for EURO 2012, to foreign journalists who visited Kyiv in June.

However, the government has done very little to use the championships as a platform for real transformation of the country. In 1993, Russia’s prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, famously said, “We wanted the best, but it turned out as always”. Ukraine’s experience with EURO 2012 can be put into the following words: “We wanted the best and to keep things as always”. This is what Soviet-style modernisation is all about: technologically things are changing, but ideologically they stay the same. It is simply yet another five-year-plan, just not a Soviet one this time, but capitalist.

Piotr Pogorzelski is a correspondent of Polish Public Radio (Polskie Radio) in Kyiv and writes a travel blog for people visiting the Ukraine.

Translated by Bogdan Potok

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