KIEV 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 Union.
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 Sadovyi said.
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 situation.
(Additional reporting by Philip O'Connor and by David Ljunggren in Lviv; Editing by Pravin Char)