KIEV, Ukraine – The June Euro 2012 football championship was Ukraine's chance to shine: forge closer ties with the West, boost its international standing and aid its struggling economy.
Instead, it's turned into a major headache.
In a move reminiscent of the Cold War, top EU officials have vowed to boycott matches held in Ukraine over the alleged mistreatment of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Critics warn that fans may be put off by exorbitant Ukrainian hotel prices and that the cash-strapped government has endangered the country by spending as much as $14 billion on the championship.
"This was a chance to show off the country because a thousand journalists will come here" said Oleh Rybachuk, a member of Tymoshenko's first Cabinet who has turned into a civic activist. "Now those thousand journalists will come and write about a million problems."
"The image, political and economic benefits — I don't see any," Rybachuk said.
Ukraine was awarded the Euro 2012 championship along with neighboring Poland in 2007 in a decision meant to reward and promote the two football-loving ex-Communist Eastern European countries, with Poland already a proud member of the EU and Ukraine aspiring to join. Back then, the Ukrainian economy was booming and the West was infatuated with the country after the 2004 pro-democracy mass protests known as the Orange Revolution brought to power a pro-Western government.
Ukraine is an entirely different story today.
Tymoshenko, the charismatic blond-braided Orange Revolution heroine and the top opposition leader, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office. Western countries decried the conviction last year as politically motivated persecution by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose fraud-tainted election victory Tymoshenko helped overthrow in 2004.
Tymoshenko, 51, has been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks after prison guards allegedly folded her in a bedsheet and punched her in the stomach, as she screamed for help. She was already suffering from debilitating back pain.
Photographs of large bruises on Tymoshenko's abdomen and arms released by the country's top human rights official, shocked the international community and prompted top EU officials, including European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the governments of Austria and Belgium to cancel plans to attend football matches in Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested she would only visit Ukraine during the championships if Tymoshenko's treatment improves.
"The lack of senior foreign officials attending the tournament is embarrassing for Yanukovych's government and will continue to generate bad press for the country," said Alex Brideau, a Ukraine analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that advises on geopolitical risk.
In a further embarrassment, Ukraine had to cancel a regional cooperation forum of central and eastern European states after more than a dozen leaders refused to attend over the Tymoshenko case.
Financially, the country is also in a bad shape.
The global financial crisis nearly destroyed Ukraine's economy, causing gross domestic product to plunge some 15 percent in 2009 and it has not fully recovered. A $15.6 billion rescue loan from the International Monetary Fund has been frozen for over a year due to Yanukovych's reluctance to carry out unpopular austerity measures.
In this situation many wonder if Ukraine can afford Euro 2012.
The government says it has spent some $4.3 billion (€3.3 billion) on building stadiums and upgrading roads and rail transport for the championship, but total figures that would include construction of government-subsidized hotels, promotional campaigns and staff training have not been released.
The Kiev-based consultancy Davinci Analytic Group estimates that Ukraine will spend a total of least $14 billion on hosting the championship, most of it coming from government coffers. The group estimates that up to $8 billion of that amount will not be returned in the medium term, as tourism is unlikely to significantly rise after the championship. Co-host Poland will spend even more — 95 billion zlotys ($29 billion, € 22 billion) on upgrading its infrastructure to host the event, according to official figures, but 40 percent of that will be covered by EU funds.
"This is a staggering amount of money to spend on the European championship," Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University, said of Ukraine. He added that much wealthier Britain will spend some 10 billion pounds ($16 billion) on the summer Olympics in London.
"In terms of economic returns, was that the best way to spend the money?"
Ukraine's top UEFA official disagrees.
"I am convinced that Ukraine needs this project very much," said Markian Lubkivsky, director of UEFA Euro 2012 in Ukraine. "We are getting integrated into the European community ... this is a geopolitical project."
"We are going to be left with modern infrastructure ... we are going to receive lots of guests and I hope that many of them will visit our country in the future."
Chadwick, however, pointed out that Greece, now in deep financial crisis, hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics but then failed to ensure that the expensive stadiums and training facilities were used beyond the games. The Davinci group estimates Greece's financial losses from the Olympics at $4 billion.
"The evidence tends to suggest that the stadiums tend to stay and rust," Chadwick said.
Opposition lawmaker Ostap Semerak from Tymoshenko's party has accused the government of embezzling up to $3.7 billion (€2.8 billion), by subcontracting friendly firms at inflated prices and then getting kickbacks.
A recent promotional video commissioned by the government caused a stir when it became known that the 30-second clip cost $160,000 in taxpayers' money and still ended up as an embarrassment. Critics sneered at the video, in which a group of Ukrainians who will help host the championship are shown learning English and making a blatant grammar error.
Ukraine has already gotten some bed press. UEFA chief Michel Platini has complained of hotel price gouging and called on the government to stop "bandits and crooks" from ripping off fans.
Even a humorous TV ad in the Netherlands has caused controversy over Euro 2012.
A Dutch energy company recently aired an ad that advises women to keep their husbands from attending the Euro 2012 because they are likely to be seduced by Ukraine's attractive women. Kiev protested the ad as "humiliating and discriminatory."
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw.