Ukraine: Shevchenko delivers joy on the pitch but off it problems remain

by Kane Prior

Ukraine is currently hosting Euro 2012 alongside Poland, with their national team having started excellently with a surprising 2-1 win over Sweden. The moment was made all the sweeter as Andriy Shevchenko scored both goals, a national hero that has served his country for the last 17 years and has been playing club football in Ukraine just to be fit for this tournament. But the glorious moment should not cover up the current failings of Ukraine.

Politics

For one, current national leaders including Angela Merkel and David Cameron are boycotting the event in Ukraine as a protest against the current imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition to the government and a past Ukrainian prime minister. There are images of her looking bruised (with her claiming to have been beaten) and she has recently ended a 20 day hunger strike in protest, ending with her being transferred to the hospital nearby.

She was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for alleged abuse of office; this has caused the EU to freeze current talks with Ukraine over their integration into the Eurozone, where Ukraine would benefit deeply from the free trade zone. The current president, Viktor Yanukovych seems afraid that Miss Tymoshenko could actually win power if allowed to campaign and has gone about silencing her (arguably backfiring), while she is not the only opposition that has experienced this treatment.

Mr Yanukovych has also increased his powers through a new constitution and delayed local elections in favour of his own party. In short he is doing everything he can to keep in power, through fair means or not and this is not the sort of democracy the West will support.

With Parliamentary elections in October, Mr Yanukovych’s party could lose seats against the two opposition parties that have so far agreed to run united against the current government. But that’s if elections are allowed to work freely, with Mr Yanukovych’s recent actions showing he isn’t one to let go of power easily.

Race issues

Next is the Ukraine’s poor racism record along with Poland in this tournament. Ahead of the championships, families of black footballers like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have refused to enter the country, while Sol Campbell (an ex England payer) advised the British public not to visit after being shown disturbing footage of racist actions in both countries.

A BBC Panorama programme showed some shocking images of racism in both countries, for example skinheads in Ukraine training for expected fights at football matches. The programme was harshly criticised for exaggerating such issues and ignoring the positive steps both countries have taken.

Yet the fear was backed up when Holland experienced racist chants in a practice match in Poland, with Dutch player Mark Van Bommel visibly annoyed that such behaviour was being ignored by those in charge. Such scenes have done neither Poland nor Ukraine’s image any good.

Economy

Finally there are the economic problems currently being ignored in the country. Ukraine’s economy was hit badly by financial crisis and declined by nearly 15% between 2008 and 2009; it has since struggled to claw back the lost growth.

Ukraine have had to finance more than half of the $13 billion spent on Euro 2012 luxuries like the new stadiums and flashy new Hyundai trains, with many feeling the money was wasted. In the case of the Hyundai trains, it is similar to a person struggling to pay off their mortgage suddenly deciding to splash out on a new car – it looks nice but a cheaper option would have been wiser.

This is not the only area where Ukraine is wasteful, with it projected that nearly 80% of the gas bought from Russia is wasted, poor piping being the main cause. The costs of refurbishing the Olympiyskiy stadium in Kiev at nearly €480 million was roughly the cost of building the National stadium in Poland, a worrying statistic considering Ukraine are reported to have paid its construction workers less wages.

Then there is the sudden increase in prices around the country in preparation for the event, with hotel prices in particular charging outrageously for tourists, leading to many fans choosing not to stay in the country (with Polish prices cheaper). This could cost Ukraine, with only half of the expected €1.5 billion expected to be brought in from tourism.

Ukraine’s growth is set to slow down to 1.6% this year from the reported 5.2% last year (boosted by the construction boom for the Euro’s), a sharp decline for the country. While the current account deficit (how much Ukraine imports more than it exports) is set to increase to 6.5%, far too high for a developing country like Ukraine.

Mr Yanukovych promised many economic reforms when he first came into power two years ago, but has so far failed to implement any real changes and has concentrated more on consolidating his position of power. The IMF for example has urged him to increase low gas prices to help cut the national budget, but with parliamentary elections round the corner, he is reluctant to cause unrest with the public.

So Ukraine remains a country with many problems; political unrest, public disorder and an underperforming economy. Mr Shevchenko’s miraculous service for his country shouldn’t obscure that, but it should give Ukrainians something to cheer about.

Kane Prior is a new columnist for Just Football and runs the blog Economic Interests. Follow him on Twitter @econinterests

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