EMMANUEL Kanavanga is as assimilated into Ukrainian life as any black man ever gets. He has lived here since 1992, and now runs the Africa Centre, a group representing black people in Kiev. He has a white Ukrainian wife, mixed-race children, and many white Ukrainian friends. But even he says: "I would not go to a football match here on my own, not even if you gave me five million dollars."
That’s not the only place Mr Kanavanga can’t go. “I wouldn’t go on the metro in the evening,” he says. “One of my members has lived here for 15 years and has never been on the metro. He says, 'Do you want me to kill myself?’?”
When Mr Kanavanga does go out, he sticks to the city centre, and walks differently from a white person. “I go one, two, three metres, look to see who is coming for me,” he says. “Then I go another few metres. We are not moving like we’re free.”
This January, after a bar fight in the western city of Ternopil, the local paper carried the front-page headline: “Arabs and negroes fight over our prostitutes.” Below it was a photomontage of two monkeys in T-shirts groping a white woman, while in the background a group of black men were sitting at a table, having a drink. The men concerned were local students who had nothing to do with the alleged incident.
During the 2010 elections, one political advert showed an elderly Ukrainian woman entering a church and reacting with horror at the sight of a black man wearing Orthodox robes, accompanied by the slogan: “We shall defend Orthodoxy.”
Yet Mr Kanavanga believes that football fans, black and white, will be safe during the Euro 2012 this month, and he wants them to come. Thousands of foreign visitors will, he says, speed up the change that has already produced significant improvements in black Ukrainians’ lives.
“The situation is becoming better, or at least less bad,” he says. “The mentality is starting to change. I wouldn’t even go on the metro in daytime before. Now we can move around. They don’t move away from you when you sit down on the train any more.”
The Africa Centre charts racist attacks. “We have a network and I’d expect to know of any significant attacks,” says Mr Kanavanga. “To my knowledge, there have only been three in Kiev so far this year.”
This February, not mentioned so far in the media frenzy, an official report from the Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance backed this up, saying Ukraine had made “progress” against bigotry and found that the number of racist attacks “appears to have diminished in recent years”.
“Ukrainian people are actually very nice,” says Kanavanga. “They’re like Africans – they’d give you their last piece of bread. But they haven’t had much contact with foreigners. And as they get more contact, they’re starting to understand that foreigners are not their enemy. These championships could change many things for us.”
But it doesn’t look like they’ll get the chance. As few as 5,000 England supporters, traditionally the biggest travelling fanbase, are expected to make the trip – 95 per cent down on the last European championships, in Germany. EU leaders, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, have called for the tournament to be boycotted over what Ms Merkel describes as the country’s slide into “dictatorship”. The Ukrainians risk throwing a party that no one wants to attend.
This was supposed to be the month they introduced their country as a modern nation, ready to take its seat at Europe’s table. Instead, the championship director, Markiyan Lubkivsky, was last week reduced to pleading with journalists for a “moratorium” on negative reports about the place. “So much mud has been heaped on this championship. Ninety per cent is just not true,” he said.
They’ve spent €£11.5 billion – an enormous sum for a middle-income country – on a new airport terminal, roads, bridges, stadia and high-speed trains. Kiev’s Regent Street – Khreschatyk – has been turned into a giant, pedestrianised, fan zone. But all the talk has been of racial violence, hotel overcharging and political oppression.
It is, substantially, the regime’s fault. “The human rights situation is incredibly bad,” says Serhiy Vaslenko, lawyer for the jailed opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoschenko. In the run-up to October’s parliamentary elections, President Viktor Yanukovych has, say his critics, been steadily decapitating his opponents.
Sentenced to seven years for “abuse of power” in signing a controversial gas deal, Tymoschenko is one of 13 prominent members of the opposition who has been convicted of, or is facing, criminal charges since Yanukovych took over. She has now been accused of further crimes, including tax evasion, which could keep her inside until 2035; the government is even talking of charging her with homicide. “In the Ukrainian system, there would be evidence that she had killed Kennedy,” says Vaslenko. “Last year, I joked that the charges against her were so absurd that they’d be accusing her of murder next – and they did.”
In Ukraine’s spoils-based, winner-takes-all politics, investigative journalist Kostiantyn Usov cautions that Tymoschenko may not be quite the angel of goodness painted by her supporters. “They all have a dark past, they all got their personal assets from the state budget,” he says. “If Yulia had won [the election], corruption would have been more hidden, more tender. The disease would be slow and not painful, though it would still be killing us.”
Yet Mr Usov, who carries a pistol for his own protection, is under no illusions about Ukrainian justice. He has secretly filmed government prosecutors telling the key witness against another jailed opposition politician, Yuriy Lutsenko, what to say. Another story he broke was a secret trial in which a murderer – who happened to be the son of the president’s best friend – got off with five years’ probation.
His TV station, TVI, has had its analogue broadcasting licence removed, taking away 70 per cent of its audience. Even the sums spent on Euro 2012 may not be all they seem. The stadium in Kiev, Usov says, cost three times the amount of any other new football ground – with no prizes for guessing whose pockets some of the extra money went into.
But the fascinating thing is how laid-back many in the government seem about all the criticism. “We don’t have negative emotions about this. Any publicity is good publicity,” says Yuriy Miroshnichenko, President Yanukovych’s chief representative in parliament, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph. “We want people to come and see an open Ukraine for themselves. The average British newspaper reader has this idea of Ukraine as an Iron Curtain stereotype – I want them to come and find out that’s wrong.”
Those fans who do come will indeed be pleasantly surprised. A visitor – rather than, say, one of Mr Yanukovych’s political opponents – will find Kiev significantly more relaxed, friendly and sunny than, for instance, London. It is also a strikingly beautiful city, full of old buildings and cheap pavement cafes.
And even in football, the problem, though real, can be overstated. An exhaustive survey by the anti-racist group Never Again found what its director, Piara Powar, described as “overwhelming evidence” of racism in the Ukrainian game. The survey itself, however, charted only 62 racist incidents at Ukrainian matches between July 2009 and December 2010 – an average of four a month.
The vast majority of these – 56 – were displays of symbols or banners that might not mean much to English fans of any race, such as the US Southern Confederate flag, the Celtic cross, the imperial eagle with an axe, or a banner with the slogan “Shakhtar [the Shakhtar Donetsk team] über alles”. Only two incidents in the 18-month period involved violence.
Skakhtar Donetsk’s commercial director, Joe Palmer, who is English, said: “I’ve been here for two and a half years, I’ve been at 40 matches and I’ve never witnessed any racism or hooliganism. We have four black players and they get no problems. In our stadium [where England’s first group match will be played], it’s a family atmosphere. Thirty per cent of our supporters are women and 30 per cent are children. I think that as the tournament progresses, England fans will start to think perhaps we should get on a plane and get over here.”
There is, perhaps, one other reason why the regime seems so relaxed. It knows that even if the tournament is boycotted, that could create a domestic backlash in its favour as voters’ anger over the “insult” to the nation cancels any anger they may feel at the regime.
The opposition, too, is clearly alive to this danger. In a message passed from her hospital imprisonment, Yulia Tymoschenko appealed for fans to come to Ukraine: “I don’t want the current authoritarian authorities to use the championships as a trigger event to legitimise sliding back of democracy and human rights,” she said. “We will welcome fans here, because football’s fair play should finally enter the political life of the country.”
There is an opposition “tent city”, near the main fan zone, complete with posters of Yanukovych as a pig and Tymoschenko as Joan of Arc. But last week, at least, it was 80 per cent empty. In Ukrainian politics, as in the fan-zone tents further down the street, Euro 2012 might be a bit of a non-event.