Ukraine takes on England this evening, two countries I hold dear, two countries from two different worlds.
As the teams collide, so do Europe’s East and West, the 1st and 2nd world.
Leading up to the tournament Ukraine was bombarded with negative press but since seeing the hospitality of this ‘terrible’ place, firing has ceased.
Ukraine may not be perfect, but Europe’s overblown reaction to its host resembled that of a spoilt brat.
News reports following the brave fans as they dare to enter this “danger zone” and face coping with slow trains, being ripped off by hotels, and racist mobs of neo Nazis, left me embarrassed by the lack of familiarity with this part of our continent.
Putting on a football show is the least of this poor country’s problems. This is the second world – one with no social security, no political stability, no animal or human rights, no dependable law system, no fancy roads, and no health and safety.
Basically, most things we take for granted in the cocooned first world go out of the window here.
Its capital seems like any Western city; all the high-street labels have set up shop, the metro runs like clockwork, while restaurants and bars abound.
But life isn’t hunky-dory for many Kievites and worse yet in the rest of Ukraine.
I had five homeless men on my doorstep during the winter and still get one or two seeking a place to kip in the sunny months. I regularly see desperate souls searching for food in dustbins and the elderly begging.
Venture away from Kiev and you’ll find villages with barely any public services or infrastructure. No electricity, no running water, no schools, no hospitals, no help whatsoever.
There are few international organizations and charities bringing support and even less help comes from the Ukrainian authorities who are only interested in money. With a callous elite running the place and the international community providing minimal aid, Ukraine is sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness.
“I don’t see a future for my children here,” an acquaintance told me.
People feel abandoned, lost, and trapped in a vicious circle, with lawlessness and corruption keeping it turning.
Paying tax, for example, is a crazy idea to Ukrainians; most get cash in hand, knowing any money going to government coffers is swindled away. Bribery is also part of daily life. Nothing gets done without a bribe and anything can be undone with one.
This corrupt alternative is the main system.
“It is like a dragon with many heads; you cut one off and another one grows,” said Andrey a driver, to me. “Everyone has to bribe to survive,” he continued.
We spoke of Euro 2012 and how most of the projects in preparation for the tournament only lined corrupt pockets.
Government officials used their own construction businesses or their buddy’s to do unnecessary work like building three ice rinks costing $11.5 million. They also billed the taxpayer $80,000 for 10 wooden benches and $500,000 for 10 portable toilets. Then there is the $18.5 million spent on a helicopter aerodrome with six helipads.
Their squandering of funds is so blatant it’s laughable! Showing the world what they can get away with.
But it’s no joke for the 90% of Ukrainians in need.
Reflecting on the state of things, Andrey sighed heavily:
“I love my country but sometimes I feel sad.”
Andrey is also a qualified teacher but gave up teaching because the salary was barely enough to live on.
Qualified professionals such as doctors, vets, and teachers are among the worst paid in the world.
In the education sector the average monthly wage is Hr 2,100 (£165) and in the public health sector and social services – Hr 1,700 (£134)
It is common to juggle jobs to make ends meet. Liana, a hotel cleaner from Severodonesk, a small town in east Ukraine, is actually a gynecologist. She and her doctor sister both have to take on cleaning work to get by.
Ukrainians are not only hardworking but extremely tenacious – 12 to 24hr shifts are standard; 9 to 5 jobs are a dream. Not only are employment prospects limited but there are few, if any, employment rights – you get paid to work and that’s that.
This chart shows the global pay scale looking at 72 countries worldwide:
The United Kingdom ranks 5th with an average monthly salary of $3,065.
Ukraine ranks 56th with an average monthly salary of $686.
This enormous pay gap exemplifies the general gap between the UK and the Ukraine.
They are two separate spheres; Ukraine’s issues are on a whole other scale to the UK’s.
So how can a country from the top of the chart lecture a country at the bottom about its problems?
It’s like a privileged aristocrat moaning about the lack of fancy restaurants in an inner-city estate and preaching to gangsters about etiquette.
While football fans worry about train schedules and hotel bills, most Ukrainians are struggling to survive.
A lot of fans, scared off by reports of racism and anti-social behaviour, decided not to come.
My experience of living here is quite different. I have never felt in danger, unlike in London where I am always wary. Everyone who’s come to visit me (and they’ve not all been white and straight) has commented on the friendliness of the locals.
If little me can ‘hack’ living here, I’m sure some hefty football lad can handle it.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia are present but crazy neo-nazis do not make up the whole population.
Such problems need addressing but in a mature and effective way – not with facebook memes, sensational press stories, and trendy campaigns that are dropped as quick as fashion changes.
Supporting organizations focused on Ukraine and the many Ukrainian activists who have been fighting for equal rights and against corruption year after year is the active approach.
I didn’t come here assuming Ukrainians would live and think like British people. It is another mentality, another culture, another country!
The sudden rant and rave about a place that hasn’t been mentioned or looked at in years, is entirely obtuse, specious, and goalless.
What did people expect after leaving Ukraine to fend for itself? These troubles haven’t just arisen since UEFA arrived; they’ve been here all along.
It speaks volumes that the only time the world opens its eyes to this country is when a capitalist football championship comes to town.
European governments are boycotting the event in protest against the abuse of Yulia Tymoshenko’s human rights.
Prince William has joined the club but I don’t see how having him watching football on TV snuggled up with Kate is going to make a difference.
It’s a lazy way to protest, a little nod to say: “Ah yes, we know about all the corruption and abuse so we’re going to avoid that godforsaken place in ‘protest’,” when really we can’t be bothered to get off our backsides.
If they really cared about what’s happening here, they wouldn’t wait for a football tournament to kick off but would have been here long before and banged on Tymoshenko’s cell until it was opened.
Like the faithful Tymoshenko supporters who have camped out in Khryshchatyk (come rain, snow, or -30°C) since her sentencing in October 2011, demanding her release and won’t give up until it happens. That’s what I call a protest!
Snubbing, scaremongering, and bad-mouthing are no way to put Ukraine on track.
No one can comprehend the realities of living here or expect change by judging it from a distance.
Instead of calling Ukraine names, alienating her and pushing her back towards Russia, Europe needs to recognize this forgotten chunk of itself, give her some much needed TLC, and help mend her broken bones so she becomes a healthy part of the European body.
Ukraine can’t move forward if the route is barred and there’s nowhere to go.
Drinking from the Euro Cup has brought much excitement and opportunity but money has been thrown to the greedy rather than the needy; allowing the Hydra to grow ever stronger. Once the football fever dies Ukraine will still be at its mercy.
At least there’ll be grand stadiums (costing millions of euros) as a souvenir of the time Europe came to visit.
Shame they’re not useful, educational, drinkable or edible for the deserted people left behind.
Clenched between the dragon’s claws is a struggling but beautiful land. One of curiosity, culture, history, and nature, and home to gentle folk who despite their hardships greet you with warmth and cheer.
Some hard facts about life in Ukraine:
- There are officially 15,000 homeless (12,000 in Kiev), although civic organizations say the actual figure is closer to 600,000-800,000
- 74% of rural population use wells of which many are contaminated by nitrates, pesticides, fluorine, oil
- 53% of the population have access to sewage system/sanitation: 74% in urban areas and 9% in rural areas
- 25% are living below the poverty line of UAH430 (USD90) per person a month and 70% do not earn enough to cover the basic needs.
- 40% of families are in acute social exclusion due to poverty
- 1.7 million officially unemployed