CHERVONOGRAD, Ukraine (Reuters) - It is hard to exaggerate how ghastly life was in the grim western Soviet mining town of Chervonograd in early 1991, when pit workers went on strike to protest against the appalling conditions.
Meat had long since vanished from the stores, butter was rationed to 200 grams (seven ounces) a month and individual Western cigarettes sold for the equivalent of two dollars. Water supplies spluttered on and off and the miners had no soap.
Roll forward 21 years and much to everyone’s surprise, Chervonograd now sits in an independent Ukraine which spent billions to co-host Euro 2012 with Poland.
“It’s been expensive but I think they did the right thing ... As a country Ukraine has shown itself to the whole world,” said Mykola Berezovskiy, a retired miner.
“It’s prestigious to show the world that we’re not Russia but Ukraine because everyone thinks of us as a part of Russia.”
For many locals the tournament has as much to do with politics as sport and is inextricably linked to the freedom Ukraine won in late 1991. Chervonograd sits in the west of the country, where hatred of the Soviet Union was intense.
Berezovskiy proudly relates that Chervonograd was the first town in Ukraine to remove its statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin. Living in his own country clearly trumps the football for him.
“They sing the national anthem in Kiev every day, raise the blue and yellow flag,” he said.
Few football fans will make it to this undistinguished town of 72,000 people, which lies 70 kilometres (45 miles) north of elegant Lviv, the regional capital which is hosting three Group B games.
Five of the 12 local mines have closed, people are noticeably less well-dressed than in Lviv, yet conditions are infinitely better than 20 years ago.
Ukrainian emigre doctors from Boston fly in to help train hospital staff. Food is plentiful and the water runs all day. The town council frets about mundane matters such as the health and sports budgets rather than averting societal collapse.
A compact yellow beer tent near the undistinguished main square is the closest Chervonograd has to a fan zone, something officials say would have been too expensive to set up. The town makes do in other ways.
“(We) organise a motorcade after our national team plays. One of them had more than 40 cars at night with national flags and horns and the most interesting thing is that we had no complaints from citizens. Everybody understands and everybody celebrates,” said deputy mayor Andriy Zalivskiy.
Most of the Euro 2012 investment was splashed in and around the four Ukrainian host cities but some money did make its way here. The heavily pot-holed road from Lviv has been repaved and a border crossing with nearby Poland is due to open next year.
Ask about the rest of the cash and politics intrudes again. Many people in this region strongly dislike President Viktor Yanukovich, who comes from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and many suspect the national government and its business allies of misusing funds earmarked for Euro 2012.
“Not everything was stolen. We’ll have terminals and roads and we’re very excited about that,” said teacher Bogdan Popik.
Yanukovich is also unpopular over his refusal to release former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail, which has ruined any chance of Ukraine joining more prosperous Poland in the European Union in the foreseeable future.
Western Ukrainians are very sensitive about both the furore and media reports alleging widespread racism.
“I think it (Euro 2012) is good because the world will learn more positive things about Ukraine ... and it will increase Ukraine’s popularity,” said marketing assistant Galina Demchuk.
Serhiy Besaga, one of the miners’ strike leaders in 1991, is happy about independence but clearly disappointed with the young and sometimes insecure country’s progress.
“Today of course you can’t compare conditions now with how they were 20 years ago. Today we live much better but I think during these 20 years we could have done a lot more and achieved a lot more,” he said.
Besaga frets that the new Lviv stadium will be grossly underused after the tournament, a fear shared by others who say the money could have been better used.
“They have spent a huge amount but we still have awful roads,” said teacher Viktor Ivanusa. “People often die because we don’t have basic medical equipment ... We are happy about the Euros right now but I think we will pay for it in future and probably our children will too.”
For Ihor Mashchak, strolling down a pleasant tree-lined avenue in the centre of town, talk of money is secondary when it comes to Euro 2012.
“The image of Ukraine is the most important thing,” he said.
Editing by Ed Osmond