For months, Ukraine has been under fire over its preparations to co-host the European soccer championship. Critics accused hoteliers of price gouging, claimed the government was directing cash for infrastructure developments to insider firms and warned fans to stay at home over fears of racist attacks. Now, as fans begin to pour into the country ahead of the first game on Saturday, Ukrainians are fighting back to rescue their country’s reputation.
A group of Ukrainians has linked up via social networks to form “Friendly Ukraine” — a nongovernmental initiative that offers free accommodation, guided tours and interpreting services to foreign fans. “An image has been formed of Ukraine as a frightening and barbaric nation where wild people live,” says Viktoria Svitlova, the groups’ coordinator. “We don’t deny that there are lots of problems, but we want to show that ordinary citizens are civilized and have European views. That’s why we created the initiative.”
When Ukraine was selected as tournament co-host with Poland in 2007, officials touted it as the former Soviet Republic’s chance to show it was ready to join Europe‘s mainstream. Three years earlier, the Orange Revolution had brought a pro-Western president to power, bringing hope that Ukraine could cast off its Soviet past. But preparations were marred by slow progress. A new president, Viktor Yanukovych, came to power in 2010 and sped up work, but this was accompanied by corruption allegations connected with key infrastructure projects, such as new airports and stadiums. Officials denied any wrongdoing.
At the center of criticism has been Yanukovych, who stands accused of rolling back the democratic freedoms that the Orange Revolution brought. Some European leaders have said they will boycott the tournament in protest at the jailing of his main political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, on abuse-of-office charges. Western officials say she has been jailed in order to sideline her from politics, and the EU has shelved an agreement that had been aimed at integrating Ukraine economically and politically into the union.
As the tournament approached, Michel Platini, the chief of tournament organizer UEFA, called hotel owners “bandits and crooks” for raising prices as much as tenfold. Reports in the British media highlighted an assault on Indian fans at a soccer stadium as evidence that Ukraine shouldn’t have been allowed to host the championship. “Everyone was sure it was a good thing to popularize the country, to improve its image. But the closer we got to the Euro, the more the tournament became a projector for all the problems that exist in the country,” Svitlova says. “These things exist,” she adds, referring to the issues of racism and the mass killing of street dogs that have come up ahead of the championship, “but there are other people who are offended that the whole country is being judged by these bad people.”
Ukraine’s government has reacted angrily to the criticism. In a televised address Thursday, Yanukovych hailed the new roads, airports and stadiums and called on Ukrainians to show “our Ukrainian hospitality, sincerity and friendliness.”
Friendly Ukraine volunteers were well ahead of him. Maksym Prodan, 24, a human resources manager, set up a website in April called roomsforfree.org.ua, where Ukrainians can offer places to stay to foreign fans. Around 400 tourists have already found accommodation in this way from places as far away as Iceland and the U.S. “We saw on TV that very few people wanted to come here. It was sad and we decided that something had to be changed,” Prodan says.
Other websites that are part of the Friendly Ukraine group are offering a variety of services. An emergency hotline for fans needing help lists cellphones numbers of volunteers offering advice in English and other languages. Three-hundred T-shirts will be printed for helpers standing in popular areas to wear and direct foreigners. Other services on offer include free pub tours and guided trips around host cities.
Svitlova says she hopes the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers will prove that ordinary Ukrainians are ready to join Europe, even if the authorities are blocking integration by keeping Tymoshenko and two of her allies behind bars. “If the authorities don’t want to become part of Europe, then we’ll do it as individuals,” she says.