While members of parliament engage in fistfights over the status of the Russian language, the British press has been warning people of color that they face racist attacks if they come here. None of the games has sold out so far. And European leaders are boycotting Ukraine over the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“We have this awkward situation where the image is deteriorating all the time,” said Oleksandra Betliy, who works at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here. “We won’t receive the benefits we wanted.”
Blame for Ukraine’s impending black eye lies largely with the government of President Viktor Yanukovych — corrupt, vindictive toward political opponents and increasingly isolated from the country it runs, its critics say. It has been going easy on repression recently, perhaps to buff up its image, and it did, at the last minute, manage to get new stadiums and airport terminals built and highways repaved. But even if the games themselves are a success in the end, they’re not likely to mark a turning point in Ukraine’s evolution.
“Ukraine lost the chance to present itself as a European country,” said Arkadiy Bushchenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
Not so, countered Anatoly Holubchenko, in charge of Kiev’s preparations. (The other participating cities are Donetsk and Kharkiv, in the Russian-speaking east, and Lviv in western Ukraine.) “I think that we have integrated very deeply into Europe,” he said, “and soon Europeans will say, ‘Ukraine is ours! Surely, it is ours!’ ”
He said the city of Kiev, with help from the central government, spent about $700 million getting ready for the month-long tournament — and that doesn’t count the cost of its new stadium, reportedly also running at up to $700 million. Or the new airport terminals.
But fans arriving from abroad are expected to spend only $300 million to $400 million, Betliy said — and that’s for all of Ukraine. Part of the problem is that soccer fans aren’t necessarily big spenders. Holubchenko boasted that 30,000 Swedes are expected. But a large number of them will be camping on an island in the Dnieper River.
The tourist infrastructure, in any case, is still woefully lacking. Pavel Babenko, who runs a citizen monitoring group that tracks the preparations, said that the tournament and the crowds it draws may help Ukrainian leaders finally recognize how much more needs to be done. Part of it is a change in attitude: Ukraine’s children’s ombudsman didn’t help matters when he warned parents to send their kids out of Kiev and the other cities for the month of June so they wouldn’t be attacked by foreign pedophiles.