Hats off to the Regionnaires for pulling off the impossible! The Euro 2012 soccer games in Ukraine and Poland seemed like a sure bet. Infrastructure would be built, tourists would come, and Ukraine’s economy—and image—would get a boost. True, it was likely that the democratic opposition would take advantage of the games to publicize its plight, but that seemed like a potentially minor disruption of a public relations coup for President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions regime.
What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, everything—thanks to Regionnaire greed and incompetence.
For starters, the Regionnaires built too few medium-category hotels, preferring five-star establishments for the rich and tent cities for the hoi polloi. Not surprisingly, with demand for regular rooms far outstripping supply, hotel operators raised their prices to astronomical levels, expecting Europeans to pay thousands of euros per night. Many fans began thinking twice about spending any significant amount of time in Ukraine, deciding it would be cheaper to fly in and out for particular games. A large number of European soccer teams came to the same conclusion and set up camp outside Ukraine.
Growing awareness of Ukraine’s booming sex industry and of Regionnaire proclivities for troglodyte sexism reinforced European skittishness about visiting a country whose boorish leaders possess antediluvian attitudes about women and their role in a modern society. The imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko only appeared to demonstrate Regionnaire hostility toward women and democracy. Worse, Regionnaire intransigence on the issue suggested that the regime was purposefully snubbing European values and blithely making itself an international pariah. Unsurprisingly, once several European leaders called for boycotting the games as long as Tymoshenko languishes in jail, anti-Yanukovych bandwagoning asserted itself with a vengeance—even Russia’s famed human rights champions, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, joined—and it quickly became evident that no one in Europe wants to give the Ukrainian president the benefit of the doubt. As one European analyst put it, “What was a few years ago called ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in the EU, a feeling of disappointment with the failure of pursuing long-promised reforms by Yushchenko and Timoshenko, has now turned into active irritation with Yanukovich’s administration. Not a very good mood to attend the forthcoming football championship for Ukraine.”
Finally, the bombs went off in Dnipropetrovsk. It was bad enough that traveling to Ukraine could be misconstrued as support of an authoritarian, repressive, sexist regime, but once the explosions took place and it seemed even remotely possible that the regime might actually have orchestrated them in order to quash protest, the thrill of watching soccer had to be weighed against the possibility of experiencing bodily harm—if not from bombs, then from the inexperienced non-English speaking Ukrainian militiamen tasked with maintaining law and order.
To be sure, the games in Lviv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Kyiv will take place, and the tourists will come, but it’s pretty clear that they will be far fewer than the million-plus that were expected just a few months ago. The hoped-for economic boom will not occur, and the vast amounts of money the Regionnaires poured into stadiums and infrastructure (about $13 billion, or 8 percent of GDP, of which 80 percent came from the state budget), as well as purloined in the process (cost overruns were often 300 percent), will not be recouped. For an economy that is barely standing on its last legs, the loss of revenue and the prospect of default is especially bad news. The Regionnaires will try to shift the blame to those dastardly Europeans, or perhaps even to the imprisoned Tymoshenko, but everyone will know who messed up—again.
Unlike the tourists, the journalists will come. But, contrary to Regionnaire expectations of good press about their brilliant handling of the games, you can be pretty certain that foreign correspondents will produce copy invariably critical of the regime. The games will not be a story—unless the Ukrainian team manages to pull off an upset victory. But Ukraine’s descent into authoritarianism, rampant Regionnaire corruption, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, violence against women, Yanukovych’s palatial lifestyle, the sex industry, and many other dark sides of life in Yanukostan will be. Expect FEMEN, the vocal group of young bare-chested feminist radicals, to be in the news on a daily basis. Expect English-speaking representatives of the unified democratic opposition to be briefing foreign correspondents on the rotten underbelly of Yanukovych’s Ukraine. Expect the journalists to be single-minded in their pursuit of stories that show the Regionnaires as the thugs and crooks they are, have been, and always will be.
The games will be a public relations disaster for the Yanukovych regime. As the People First Foundation puts it, “Euro 2012 is rapidly turning into the farce of the century with thousands of unsold tickets, government delegations threatening a boycott and the national reputation being dragged through the gutter and all because of the arrogance of those in power who believed it would all be so simple.”
And just think: a few short months after, Ukrainians will go to the polls in parliamentary elections. Yanukovych, who has centralized all power in his own hands, will have no one to blame but himself for the Regionnaires’ remarkable record of failures. Expect voters to agree.