Ukraine today: a guide for digging deeper


When in 2007 Ukraine was given the privilege of co-hosting the Euro 2012 games, the tournament was seen as a unique opportunity to unite the country, improve infrastructure and set in train European reforms. Everything that has happened since has deviated from that script. Today, the world’s media routinely portray a country in democratic crisis; Andrew Wilson’s take, which delves a bit deeper, concludes that things are, in fact, even worse.

Andrew Wilson
11 June 2012

Sport engages us most when it provides a test of character. Normally of course this is when people are actually playing the sport in question; but Ukraine’s co-hosting of the European Championship Finals with Poland this summer has had a similar function, casting an unexpectedly bright light on all that is wrong with modern Ukraine. It was supposed t o be the other way around. When the tournament was originally awarded jointly to Poland and Ukraine in 2007, just three years after the Orange Revolution, the underlying story was about cooperation across borders and between the many versions of ‘Europe’, and even Ukraine’s long-term European future. But fast-forward to Yanukovych’s Ukraine in 2012 and the narrative has flipped into the stark contrast either side of the new EU border, between ‘good’ Poland and ‘bad’ Ukraine - and to certain common central-east European problems like residual racism.

'Anyone who travels to Ukraine will know how much Ukrainians appreciate any attention and effort paid to their country and their language. A few words of politesse in Ukrainian will make the welcome particularly warm.'

A snapshot of the British press on just one day, the Sunday before the Championship began, shows the chorus of criticism. The Sunday Times looked at corruption in building work for the tournament;[1] the Observer, inter alia, focused on the rise of the far-right Freedom Party; while the Sunday Telegraph had the headline worth quoting in full: ‘The Euro 2012 welcome that awaits in Ukraine. Racism, corruption, human rights abuse – could it be any worse for the co-hosts of Euro 2012?’

The Ukrainians like to be precise about these things. According to Denys Bohush  Vice-President of PR-League, only 62% of stories in the international press about Ukraine were negative from January to October 2011. From the Tymoshenko conviction in October 2011 until March 2012, the figure grew to 82%. Now it might be even higher.

Some of this may be exaggerated, as always when groupthink descends, particularly the stories on hooliganism. Ukraine shares the common cultural problem throughout much of Eastern Europe of a total lack of political correctness, and has a strong nationalist sub-culture in the west. The big cities of East Ukraine have the same skinhead culture as in Russia. But the BBC’s Panorama programme looked mainly at Kharkiv, where the number of skinhead racists who are also Ukrainian nationalists cannot be very large.


The Ukrainian leadership under Yanukovych deserves every inch of bad press it is now getting. Rampant corruption, likelihood of default on foreign loans, crackdowns on former leaders of the Orange administration such as Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko have been the regime’s major achievements in the last 2 years.

Ordinary Ukrainians will provide visiting football fans with a warm welcome. Anyone who travels to Ukraine will know how much Ukrainians appreciate any attention and effort paid to their country and their language. A few words of politesse in Ukrainian will make the welcome particularly warm.

But the Ukrainian elite is another matter. Schadenfreude is an underrated pleasure – and the Ukrainian leadership under Yanukovych deserves every inch of bad press it is now getting. Journalists are ranging far and wide because they can tell that current problems are symptomatic of something deeply rotten at the heart of the state. It is right, for example, that the Tymoshenko saga has been kept at centre-stage. In one package, it covers so much of what is wrong with the current regime: its mafia-like instincts, the persecution of opponents, the reliance on Soviet-era law, the incompetent handling of a trial that presented almost nothing in the way of actual ‘evidence’, and the pig-headed refusal to compromise or even recognise the damage being done to Ukraine’s national interests.

But here is my personal guide for those who want to dig further.

1. Look in more detail at the legal system. The Tymoshenko affair has demonstrated that Ukraine does not have a defective rule of law; it has no rule of law at all. Things were bad enough even before Yanukovych came to power in 2010. There were two major judicial crises under ‘orange’ Ukraine that left the whole legal system deeply discredited: the first when political infighting left the Constitutional Court inquorate and unable to function in 2005-06; the second when both sides tried to bribe and intimidate the Constitutional Court to rule in their favour during the dissolution crisis in the summer of 2007. So the legal system was a soft target for Yanukovych’s judicial ‘reform’ in the summer of 2010. But Ukrainian courts have no real jury system; the Procuracy acts as a hired gun for the political authorities; so judges were the last line of defence against arbitrary justice until the highly centralising 2010 ‘reform’ placed all aspects of their working lives (pay, promotion, dismissal, caseload) under executive authority. No wonder that conviction rates are over 99%.

  • 2. Follow the money. Corruption in the Euro 2012 building process has meant rake-offs of more than a third on most projects, especially after the incoming Yanukovych administration abolished competitive tendering for most contracts in 2010. How much did it all cost? No one really knows.
  • Follow the money to the top. Power is increasingly shifting in Ukraine to a literal and metaphorical ‘Family’. Why is Oleksandr Yanukovych, the president’s oldest son, also the world’s richest dentist, with a fortune of $96.4 million? The answer is unfortunately simple: ‘Family’ members have taken over the finance and tax authorities, the National Bank and most recently the ‘siloviki’. Yanukovych junior and all of the Family cronies are getting rich through the smash-and-grab predatory power of the state (raiderstvo  in Ukrainian).

3. Look below the surface. Money also drives the political system. The authorities have already fixed the rules for the parliamentary elections in October 2012; now they are using covert funding to try and fix the cast list as well. Several fake opposition parties have appeared to split the opposition vote, and more will arrive before October. Even the far right phenomenon can be partly blamed on the ruling authorities, who have cynically manipulated the Freedom Party to create a ‘scarecrow’ and unelectable opposition.

    4. Go to Brussels. Ukraine gets a bad press, but spends a lot on PR, particularly in Washington and Brussels. Though one reason Ukraine gets such a bad press is that the authorities don’t understand how the media works. The medium needs a message; but the authorities have cynically invested in propaganda instead.

      5.Stay in Kiev. It was right for Michel Platini to complain about ‘bandits and crooks’ being responsible for Ukraine’s skyrocketing hotel prices. This is not just a question of supply and demand. There is evidence of mafia protection rackets forcing hoteliers to raise prices by more than they wished. The supply problem is also symptomatic: the Ukrainian elite has built several new high-end hotels that they themselves might use, but middle-market chain hotels are still under-represented in the local market. Just like the Ukrainian economy as a whole, where big business dominates government and the SME sector has actually shrunk in recent years.

      The list could go on. Others may have their own suggestions. But any story that goes beyond the football to look at Ukraine’s current woes is likely to be a long one.

      [1] Mark Franchetti and Hala Jaber, ‘Ukraine leader’s crones “grab cash meant for Euro 2012”’, The Sunday Times , 3 June 2012.

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