KIEV, Ukraine — As protests go, this one could hardly be expected to shift world opinion: four activists with their faces painted blue holding a collection of placards outside Berlin’s Adlon Hotel.
But organizers of the stunt, timed to coincide with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s first trip to Germany, said that was not their purpose. Instead, they hoped to draw attention to plans by the Ukrainian authorities to slaughter hundreds of thousands of stray animals in preparation for the Euro 2012 European soccer championship.
The organization PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — famous, among other things, for hurling red paint on women in fur coats and interrupting fashion shows — has called for a boycott of the event, for the simple reason that: “The authorities’ measures to reduce the [animal] population are anything but humane. The animals are poisoned, shot, or even burned alive.”
It's not the first spot of bother for Ukraine in organizing an event that Kiev hoped would bring a flood of attention, if not hard currency, from the scores of international visitors expected to arrive two summers from now.
Ukraine's selection as co-host for the tournament with neighboring Poland was greeted as a major boon for this ex-Soviet eastern European nation, but Europe’s governing soccer body, UEFA, had already threatened to strip Ukraine of its host status if it could not meet deadlines to build the needed infrastructure, such as stadiums, airports, roads and hotels.
UEFA recently gave the country’s preparations a clean bill of health. Four Ukrainian cities —Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv — are set to hold the matches, with Kiev hosting the final.
Enter the activists.
Tamara Tarnavska is a former journalist and animal rights activist, who runs one of Kiev’s only animal shelters. There, hundreds of homeless dogs and cats, whom Tarnavska says would otherwise be exterminated by city authorities, find refuge.
Her organization, the SOS animals society of Kiev, is spearheading the campaign to inspire fans to boycott the European soccer championship. Already she says the movement has garnered the signature of several celebrities, including George Clooney, Brigit Bardot and Ukrainian world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko.
“The idea is not to stop Euro 2012,” she said. “Of course we cannot stop the fans. The fans want to see football [soccer], prostitutes in Kiev and vodka — I cannot stop them with the stray animals. But people who really care about the environment, who really care about the lives of others cannot visit Kiev or the other cities at this time.”
She continued: “Hundreds of thousands of animals [will be killed across Ukraine in the run-up to the tournament]. The Ukrainian authorities really haven’t done anything to take care of the stray animals. No shelters or neutering work. Just catch and kill.”
Ukrainian authorities say that they are aware of the issue and will take the necessary measures. They also say that the animal activists are exaggerating the situation.
“The problem will be resolved without question,” said Deputy Prime Minister Borys Kolesnikov, whose portfolio consists exclusively in making sure that Ukraine is prepared to host Euro 2012. “There will be enough money to save all the animals.”
But Tarnavska says that so far her official appeals have gone unanswered. What’s more, she fears that the money dedicated to preserving the country’s animals will disappear down a black hole of corruption, as it has in the past.
At the same time, she also says that she realizes that the boycott is merely a symbolic gesture. “We don’t have any other choice. If Ukrainian authorities refuse to listen, this is our only choice,” she said.