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Karen Coleman: Ukraine and the hidden scourge of neo-nazi racism

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Yulia Tymoshenko's
imprisonment and
impending trial has led
some European
politicians to boycott the
Euro 2012 games.

Yulia Tymoshenko's imprisonment and impending trial has led some European politicians to boycott the Euro 2012 games.

Yulia Tymoshenko's imprisonment and impending trial has led some European politicians to boycott the Euro 2012 games.

What do you think the following have in common? Giovanni Trapattoni, an imprisoned blonde politician, Pat Cox -- the former president of the European Parliament -- an Indian student and a bunch of neo--nazi thugs?

The answer is Ukraine. I'll get back to Mr Cox and the others a little later but first let's look at Ukraine itself. Euro 2012 has thrown the spotlight on its questionable democracy and racism in its soccer stands. Despite the heady days of its 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine's transition to a modern republic has been difficult.

In November 2004, tens of thousands of protesters descended on to Ukraine's streets and squares to protest against the fraudulent and corrupt presidential elections. At the time Viktor Yanukovych had been declared the winner against his run-off rival Viktor Yushchenko.

For several weeks, indignant crowds turned out in the freezing cold to demand justice. In the end they got what they wanted. A new election was held and Viktor Yushchenko became Ukraine's new president.

You may remember that Mr Yushchenko was the man whose handsome face was scarred with pockmarks after he ingested toxic substances in the run-up to the Orange revolution. He claimed government agents had poisoned him.

When he first assumed power, he was feted by world leaders and there was a euphoric sense that Ukraine was shedding its Soviet legacy and entering a new dawn of democracy. That was wishful thinking.

Within a short time, infighting and allegations of corruption tore the fledgling democratic movement apart and Mr Yushchenko fell out with his erstwhile revolutionaries. One of them was Yulia Tymoshenko, the blonde lady mentioned earlier who is now serving a seven-year sentence for allegedly abusing her position as prime minister.

The saddest irony today is that the Orange Revolution's chief villain, Viktor Yanukovych, is once again president. His re-election shows just how rocky Ukraine's transition to democracy has been.

Running underneath its complicated politics is a nasty underbelly of neo-nazi racism that raises its ugly head in the soccer stadiums.

That brings us to the Indian student. This unfortunate soccer fan was kicked and punched by a bunch of Ukrainian thugs at a recent soccer match between two rival Ukrainian teams who were playing at Kharkiv stadium, where some of the Euro 2012 matches are taking place.

The footage of the hooligans beating the Indian fan was broadcast in a recent BBC 'Panorama' programme. During the match, several men set upon a couple of Asian fans who were peacefully watching from the stands.

One man targeted was a student from India who was living in Ukraine. In the BBC programme you can clearly see this poor guy being dragged up steps and kicked to the ground and beaten. It was a frightening display.

The BBC reporter had spent April attending and filming football matches in Poland and Ukraine. His findings were shocking. He filmed soccer fans from both countries shouting anti-Semitic and racist chants.

There were several scenes of soccer hooligans making monkey sounds when black players were on the field. The fans wore nazi symbols and they hung huge 'white power' banners in the stadiums. Security seemed to do little to stop them.

Some of the most disturbing scenes in the programme were those of Ukrainian soccer fans raising their arms in a nazi salute.

This kind of neo-fascism isn't confined to Poland and Ukraine. A number of neo-nazi organisations operate across Europe. Their racist anti-Semitic antics go way beyond the soccer stadiums. National parliaments are also providing platforms for their intolerance.

Just look to Greece where the far-right Golden Dawn party is gaining ground. The recession has given them a new momentum with fearful Greeks finding their anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric appealing.

The latest stunt by Golden Dawn is a threat to raid Greek hospitals and kindergartens to eject immigrants and their children. They're threatening to carry out the raids if they gain more seats after tomorrow's elections.

Fear and xenophobia were also key factors that enabled Adolf Hitler and his mob of nazi gangsters to gain ground in the 1930s when Germany was suffering from massive unemployment, inflation and economic depression.

Getting back to Ukraine, soccer xenophobia isn't the only problem highlighted by Euro 2012. The case of Yulia Tymoshenko is also causing concern.

Last year, Ms Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her position when she struck an oil deal with Russia when she was prime minister. American and European officials claim she was subject to a show trial and that it was politically motivated. The glamorous blonde has claimed security guards in the prison have beaten her.

Her case has gained global attention with her young daughter Eugenia helping to highlight her case by travelling extensively to plead for her mother's release. Eugenia recently came to the European Parliament where she met with its top politicians who are now calling for justice for Yulia.

That brings us to the final link in the Ukrainian chain mentioned at the beginning. The former president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, has also taken up Ms Tymoshenko's case. Mr Cox and a former Polish president are to monitor upcoming court proceedings against her later this month.

Her case has prompted several European leaders to boycott the Euro 2012 games in Ukraine including Angela Merkel, David Cameron and the President of the European commission Jose Manuel Barroso.

At least a boycott is one dilemma Taoiseach Enda Kenny won't have to face now that Ireland's chances of a glorious finale in Kiev Stadium on July 1 are well and truly over.

Irish Independent