Image problems grow for Ukraine as Euro soccer nears

Wed Jun 6, 2012 4:48pm GMT

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV (Reuters) - The street jugglers are out in action and a festive buzz is growing in the Ukrainian capital where the centre has been transformed into one big Euro soccer 'welcome' zone.

But the closer the Euro 2012 tournament gets, the more the problems mount for President Viktor Yanukovich.

The balls he will have to keep in the air while his country co-hosts the tournament with Poland during June range from political boycott to charges of racism.

A row over the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, which led to ugly clashes between Ukrainian speakers and police in the Euro 'fan zone' on Tuesday, threatens to rebound on him before next October's parliamentary election.

The ruling party's move to increase the role of Russian in the country, which has incensed many Ukrainian speakers, has only added to a deluge of bad publicity ahead of Euro 2012. The tournament opens in Poland on Friday with the final being played in Kiev on July 1.

When the script was written in 2008 - part of it by Poland, Ukraine's 'cheerleader' in Europe - making Ukraine the co-host for Europe's biggest soccer feast was seen as an incentive to the former Soviet republic to integrate into Europe's democratic family.

"They wanted to use the European championship as propaganda to show Ukraine as a big European country with great potential. But today it is clear that these plans have not materialised," said Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of the Penta think tank.

After Yanukovich became president in early 2010, his Regions Party saw the hosting of the Euros - negotiated by the previous more overtly pro-Western government - as a platform from which to launch a successful election campaign later in 2012.   Continued...

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