* National coach says there is no racism in Ukraine
* Says any racist incidents will not be in Ukraine
* Country battles image problems during soccer finals
By Timothy Heritage
KIEV, June 10 Ukraine's national soccer team
coach on Sunday defended his country against racism charges that
threaten government hopes of the Euro 2012 tournament spurring
integration with European democracies.
Oleg Blokhin, a former player and national sporting hero,
put down his headphones and stopped listening to the translation
of a question about racism during a news conference at the
soccer finals which Ukraine and Poland are co-hosting.
"I don't want to talk about racism. There is no racism in
Ukraine," Blokhin said on the eve of the former Soviet
republic's opening match against Sweden, a nation that is one of
Europe's most vocal defenders of human rights.
"This is a political matter. I don't think it has anything
to do with football. If there are any incidents, they will not
be in Ukraine," he told the news conference in the Olympic
Stadium in the capital Kiev.
Questioning quickly returned to soccer matters but the
incident underlined Ukraine's problems in keeping attention
fixed on sport, rather than politics, at an event it had hoped
would show its democratic credentials for joining the European
The biggest sports event in eastern Europe since the Berlin
Wall fell risks having the opposite effect by drawing the
world's attention to allegations of racism, human rights abuses
and the plight of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
France and Britain have joined Germany in saying they will
boycott matches in the country of 46 million because of the
treatment of Tymoshenko, a former prime minister sentenced to
seven years in prison last October for abuse of office.
The main rival of President Viktor Yanukovich, she is now
being treated for back problems in a clinic in the eastern city
of Kharkiv and says she was physically manhandled by prison
guards in April, a charge which prison authorities deny.
The sports ministers of Denmark and the Netherlands, both EU
member states, increased pressure on Ukraine on Saturday by
meeting rights activists and victims of alleged police torture
in Kharkiv before watching their countries play in the city.
Dutch Health and Sports Minister Edith Schippers said after
the talks, which covered police brutality, homophobia and the
need for an independent judiciary, that they "show that you can
be randomly arrested and tortured" in Ukraine.
LVIV MAYOR HITS BACK
The mayor of Lviv, one of the tournament host cities, hit
back against the racism allegations on Sunday and dismissed a
call by a Jewish rights group to avoid restaurants which it
accused of being anti-Semitic.
In the build-up to the month-long tournament, German and
British media reports described widespread racism in Ukraine and
referred to supporters of a Lviv club who have been known to
brandish Nazi flags at games.
"Lviv is an absolutely tolerant city ... (with) people of
different nationalities who respect each other," Mayor Andriy
Maksym Butkevych, an anti-racism campaigner, said there was
unlikely to be any increase of racist violence in Ukraine during
the month-long tournament.
"I think this reaction (to racism) is exaggerated," he said,
but made it clear there was a regional problem by saying the
"situation regarding racism and xenophobia (in Ukraine) is not
something exceptional in the Eastern European context".
Poland, which like Ukraine was under Communist rule little
more than two decades ago, has also faced accusations of racism.
Dutch players said they had heard "monkey chants" during a
training session in the southern city of Krakow.
Poland's prime minister showed his concern over the
allegations of racism by dining at the home of the country's
first black member of parliament last week.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly offered assurances that
racism is not rife in the country, and have said the unofficial
boycott of matches in Ukraine will not affect Tymoshenko's
(Additional reporting by Philip O'Connor and by David Ljunggren
in Lviv; Editing by Pravin Char)