Ukraine's election hopefuls play on football fervour for votes

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The Independent Online
SKULDUGGERY and politics are eternally entwined, but the spectacle that will today be played out in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is one of the more flamboyant fibs told in the name of garnering votes.

One thousand guests will gather in the capital's Palace of Culture for a two-hour gala concert to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country's pride and joy, the Dynamo Kiev football team. Top brass from the government will be there. So will the country's richest businessmen, its most celebrated performers, and - of course - stars of the field, past and present. Millions of Ukrainians are expected to tune in to watch the jamboree, which will be broadcast at prime time on one of the most popular national channels, Inter.

But, as the ex-Soviet republic looks fondly back at the long history of its favourite side, which was founded by a decree from Stalin, one detail is unlikely to receive much attention. It is not, technically speaking, the 70th anniversary at all. That occasion slipped by almost unnoticed in November. The festivities were postponed in a thinly disguised attempt to manipulate the outcome of the parliamentary elections, on Sunday.

These days Dynamo Kiev - which is considered one of the best teams in Europe - is about far more than football. The club president, Hrihory Surkis, a multi-millionaire businessman, is one of the top five on the list of candidates from the centrist United Social Democratic Party . So is his deputy, Viktor Medvedchuk. So is Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of Dynamo's supervisory board and the country's first post-Soviet president. To the irritation of some of the fans, most of the players and coaches, not previously known for their appetite for politics, have signed up for party membership.

The logic of the party - and the club's - ambitious leadership is sound enough. This century alone, Ukraine's history has seen a catalogue of tragedies, be it the famine created by Stalin, Nazi invasion, or the devastation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The euphoria of independence has faded, corroded by economic decline and stagnancy, corruption, the tenacity and greed of the old Soviet-style nomenclature.

Yet the football team has given the nation something to cheer about, something which has been manifestly lacking under the leadership of President Leonid Kuchma. Its games routinely attract 100,000-strong crowds. Its coach, Valery Lobanovsky, has become the most popular man in the country, the subject of poems and songs. A scandal in 1995 when the club was banned from European competition for trying to bribe a Spanish referee with $30,000 and two fur coats has faded from view. While politics is greeted with apathy and despair, Dynamo Kiev still inspires hope and enthusiasm.

The SDPU - and its candidate as the next president, Yevhen Marchuk - is hoping to cash in on this sentiment. "We want to attract votes from people who have been disappointed by politics," said Oleksiy Mustafin, the party's spokesman, as he sat beneath a campaign poster printed in the Dynamo Kiev team colours. The party's advertisers have brazenly pumped the football theme, churning out calenders with pictures of the players, and photographs showing the candidates in the Dynamo strip

Last week, however, the SDPU - which is expected to be among the top five parties - received an unpleasant shock. In a match watched by most of the 50 million population, Dynamo Kiev were beaten 4-1 by Juventus in the quarterfinals of the European League of Champions. Political pundits say the result has shaved between 2 and 5 per cent off the SDPU's ratings.

Its rivals were contemptuous. "A party that stakes its future on football is not serious," said Vyacheslav Koval, spokesman for Rukh, the Ukrainian nationalist party. "The players couldn't play properly, as they felt the burden of responsibility. They were frightened of the ball."

The party, however, is undeterred. "It showed that life is like politics. There is not a victory every day, but there will be other victories in the future," said Mr Mustafin. What angers him more is the manner in which the SDPU's tactics are now being ripped off by several of the other 30 organisations vying for ballots.

The players from one of the better sides in the Ukrainian premier league, Karpaty - from the western city of Lviv - have declared their support for the Agrarians. Much to the annoyance of Dynamo Kiev's management, the club's logo suddenly began appearing on propaganda put out by the pro-government People's Democratic Party.

Whether this football fervour will do anyone much good is questionable. As the election nears, the signs are that people care less about dribbling skills than dollars. Andrei Doloshko, a printer aged 24, was waiting on a corner to take his girlfriend to Dynamo's local fixture last night. He will not be voting on Sunday. "I am a fan of the cub, and I like the managers. But why should I believe that lot knows about anything apart from football."