When UEFA chose Poland and Ukraine to co-host the Euro 2012 tournament, both countries had high hopes that this would promote their profiles.
Preparations turned into internal projects for modernisation. High-speed trains, and new stadia, roads, airports, and hotels have sprung up to impress visitors. The Ukrainian Government has been particularly keen to showcase its post-Soviet transition in an area of Europe that remains relatively unknown.
But things have not turned out as hoped. Since 2011 the Western media has reported on the imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the decline of Ukraine’s democracy, and now threats by many EU leaders of boycotting the ceremony.
A recent BBC Panorama documentary added fuel to the fire with an exposé on racism in football in Poland and Ukraine. It warned visiting British fans of the possible danger of racist attacks. Images of radical youth groups aggressively shouting and exposing fascist symbols shocked audiences in the UK and, for the host countries this was a PR disaster on the eve of the championship.
How bad are racial prejudices in Ukraine?
The influential World Value Survey showed that only 12 per cent of Ukrainians would not want to have people of a difference race as their next-door neighbour, compared to 13 per cent in Poland and 26 per cent in France. The problem is that Ukrainian society, despite reasonable trade relations, remains closed to European influences. Visa barriers within the Schengen zone and the struggle for economic survival limit Ukraine's internal and external mobility, and, thus, its exposure to other cultures. Ukrainian cities are not cosmopolitan centres with blooming diversity but rather homogeneous and struggling urban industrial areas – fertile soil for extremism and xenophobia.
According to a report by the Council of Europe's Commission Against Racism, the performance of the Ukrainian authorities in fighting racial abuse cases is especially poor. The police are only trusted by 17 per cent of all Ukrainians, and courts are the least trusted institutions in Ukraine. In this regard all Ukrainians are victims of the absence of rule of law.
The Commission's report also points to the growing problem of neo-Nazi and skinhead football fans. The far right, paramilitary Kharkiv Partriot cell is financed by a local businessman and opposition leader. Its members are at his disposal to conduct business raids and harass competitors. Exploiting aggressive and racist symbols is basically a tool for economic banditry, and law enforcement agencies have reacted to Patriot’s increased criminal activity and arrested its leader in December 2011. However, the racist nature of Patriot was not part of the charges, suggesting that the Ukrainian authorities are in denial.
An additional cause for alarm is the connection with extremist groups in Russia. Due to the open border in the East, Ukrainians are easy prey for Russian far right organisers, who use concerts and stadia for recruiting. This requires serious attention from the Ukrainian national security services.
If Ukraine wants to belong to a European club of nations, than it must play by the rules. This means racism should be met with the same zero-tolerance as it is in 'old' Europe. Many Polish and Ukrainian civic groups are working together to promote diversity and prevent any discriminatory incidents during the championship. By enlarging the championships to 'new' Europe for the first time in its history, UEFA has offered Ukraine more than a football festival. Now Ukraine should show its European credentials by demonstrating tolerance and bring much needed social change.