Leading article: Could Ukraine grab a late winner?

 

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Five years ago, when Uefa selected Ukraine to co-host the Euro 2012 championship, the outlook was rosy. Buoyed by the optimism of the 2004 Orange Revolution, the former Soviet state had swift economic development and an end to autocratic rule well within its sights. Now however, as the tournament commences, the picture is an altogether darker one.

Progress has been patchy from the start, as the newly democratic leaders in Kiev spent more time fighting between themselves than instituting the reforms their corrupt, sclerotic country needed. But under Viktor Yanukovych, president since 2010, Ukraine has gone into reverse.

Most troubling of all is the seven-year jail sentence handed down to Yulia Tymoshenko – a former prime minister and Yanukovych rival – for "abuse of office" over a gas deal with Russia. Many EU leaders are publicly shunning Euro 2012 in protest. Rightly so. For all the question marks over Ms Tymoshenko's activities, her arrest and trial bear all the hallmarks of political persecution. And subsequent complaints about her treatment in prison only reinforce the impression of a country slipping back into old, objectionable ways.

As if that were not enough, the exposure of appalling levels of racism in Ukrainian football has added another dimension to concerns over Euro 2012. Tales of Nazi salutes, violent attacks on people from ethnic minorities, and bananas thrown at black players, cannot but raise questions of ethics – and safety – for fans attending the tournament in the coming weeks.

For all their potency, however, such qualms do not add up to the conclusion that Ukraine should not be hosting the championship at all. Quite the reverse. Euro 2012 has already triggered unprecedented scrutiny of Ukrainian affairs, and that will only continue as thousands of fans descend on the country in the days ahead. Kiev may have missed the opportunity to use Euro 2012 to sell itself to the world, as Germany achieved so successfully with the 2006 World Cup. But there is still a hope that the searching glare of international attention may help jolt the Orange Revolution back on track. It can hardly make matters worse.

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