Ukraine's $13 Billion Bid For European Relevance
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Euro 2012, the European soccer championship, is playing out now in Poland and Ukraine. Ukrainian officials had hoped the games would show the world their country really is part of Europe.
But as David Stern reports, that idea is proving to be a hard sell.
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DAVID STERN, BYLINE: In a bar in the eastern city of Donetsk, English fans psyche themselves up for a game against France. The place is filled with raucous beer-swilling men. Europe's rowdy soccer multitudes have descended onto Ukraine and Poland, as 16 countries battle to become the continent's top team.
The government here has spent some $13 billion, hoping Euro 2012 would establish Ukraine as a full-fledged member of the European family. As the tournament opened, Olga, a student who didn't give her last name, was optimistic.
OLGA: It's a good possibility for Ukraine, to show our country on the international arena.
STERN: Ukrainian officials are also hoping the games will boost their standing in the national arena, since parliamentary elections are approaching in October.
But a big cloud hangs over Ukraine's coming-out party - the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
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STERN: Demonstrators sang in support of the golden-braided Tymoshenko, the glamorous and charismatic heroine of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Last year, she was sentenced to seven years for allegedly overstepping her authority while in office.
OLEG RYABACHUK: She's definitely guilty of something but it's got nothing to do with the fact that she is in prison today. She is not in prison today for proven facts.
STERN: This is Oleg Ryabachuk, who served in the previous government and is now an independent analyst. He says that Tymoshenko is in jail simply because she's a rival to President Viktor Yanukovych.
The leaders of Germany, France and Britain agree, and they've boycotted matches scheduled for Ukraine to protest Tymoshenko's treatment.
Foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn insists she's guilty as charged. And, he says, European leaders should not mix soccer and politics.
OLEG VOLOSHYN: How can not coming to the football match for two hours, as a fan to support your own team, influence the situation around Tymoshenko?
STERN: But the jailing of Tymoshenko isn't Ukraine's only problem, as it tries to impress its European guests. The new stadia and airports may be state-of-the-art, but English soccer fan Ross Tridget says the infrastructure is not up to European standards.
ROSS TRIDGET: We've been driving around but the roads, potholes, and maybe actually the locals driving have been interesting.
STERN: More troubling is the accusation that large sums intended for Euro 2012 went missing. Former government official Oleg Ryabachuk says construction projects cost much more than they should have.
RYABACHUK: Mostly what people are discussing, billions and billions of money which have been openly and cynically taken from our budget, without any chance to get any profit in the future.
STERN: Ryabachuk and other analysts are expecting the political fallout in Ukraine to start right after the final whistle.
For NPR News, this is David Stern in Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.