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.
Domestically, it would infuse people with some joy amid mounting economic woes including swallowing painful IMF medicine in the shape of taxation and pension reform.
Abroad, Ukraine would be able to turn a confident smiling face to the world and project the image of a country that had finally discarded its heavy Soviet legacy and was ready to take its place in mainstream Europe.
“The Regions had big plans to use the Euros for their future campaign. But the Euro ‘effect’ has turned out to be unexpectedly ambiguous,” Fesenko said.
Ukraine was not supposed to end up the whipping boy.
But much of the European goodwill that Ukraine has enjoyed in the past seven years has derived from the 2004-5 Orange Revolution that briefly brought a realignment of political forces. The real image problems began when the Yanukovich administration moved against the heroine of that movement, Yulia Tymoshenko.
The West denounced her jailing in October on charges of abuse-of-office as “selective justice”.
For a while, the Yanukovich leadership looked likely to ride out the political storm which subsequently shook its burgeoning ties with the European Union.
But then in late April the charismatic ex-prime minister alleged from jail in Kharkiv that she had been physically manhandled by prison guards. Yanukovich has been in damage-control mode since.
Western leaders, many of whose national teams will compete in the month-long Euro 2012, reacted with horror to images of the 51-year-old forlornly nursing her bruises.
Led by Germany, leaders of several European Union countries called off scheduled visits to Ukraine, including to a planned meeting by the Black Sea, in protest. Lithuania’s president warned Yanukovich that he was courting “isolation” through his treatment of Tymoshenko.
And it is highly likely that many European politicians will stay away from the Euros even if their teams progress past the opening stages.
Tymoshenko, now being treated in a Kharkiv clinic for back trouble, says Euro 2012 will cement Ukraine’s rightful place in Europe and her supporters are not expected to try to disrupt the tournament to further her cause.
But - like a government in exile - she can be expected to issue political messages and revel in any discomfort that comes Yanukovich’s way.
Even before the allegations of brutality against Tymoshenko, UEFA president Michel Platini had chipped away at the welcoming image that Ukraine was preparing to display to the outside world.
He accused hoteliers in the four Euro cities of Kiev, Kharkiv, Lviv and Donetsk of being “bandits and swindlers” for jacking up their prices ten-fold to cash in big time on the Euros.
Subsequent British press reports that racist violence was prevalent at club soccer matches in Ukraine - denied by the authorities - and violence against participants of a Gay pride meeting have only fuelled fears among organisers that many foreign fans will stay away.
Markiyan Lubkivsky, Ukraine’s UEFA director, urged the media to observe a truce over “negative information” about the championship, saying local press was “pouring mud” on Ukraine.
Authorities have issued assurances to foreign football clubs and their fans over their safety and are appealing to people to come to the Euros.
In Kiev, metal-and-concrete trash bins have been removed from downtown streets after four bombs planted in similar bins exploded in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk in April.
But the government will be anxious to avoid the unexpected, like Tuesday’s clashes between Ukrainian speakers and police.
The first words of the Ukrainian national anthem - “Glory and freedom of Ukraine are not dead yet” - have a double-edged ring that Ukrainians themselves often fret over. They suggest people are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Yanukovich, in his last pronouncement on Euro 2012, said: “We have crossed all the hurdles that were on our path. Now we are into the home straight.”
Editing by Alessandra Rizzo