Ukraine’s Education Ministry has introduced soccer, the country’s most popular sport, into the national curriculum, a move more political than it might seem. Education Minister Vasyl Kremin is a member of the United Social Democratic Party (USDP), which unites several influential businessmen from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s inner circle. The USDP leaders, First Deputy Rada Speaker Viktor Medvedchuk and reputed oligarch Hryhory Surkis, have interests in the world of soccer. Surkis owns Ukraine’s richest soccer club, Dynamo Kyiv, and chairs the professional soccer body–the National Football Federation. Soccer lessons will be an additional canvassing tool of the USDP in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of March 2002. Soccer and the USDP will enter the family of every Ukrainian teenager.
The move was well timed. Most of USDP’s opponents were caught unawares on summer vacation and could not cry foul. It took the USDP and the Education Ministry only about seven weeks to get everything prepared. On August 28, Surkis announced that the Football Federation had already sent 22,500 soccer balls to schools and 100,000 more would be sent by the end of 2001. Payment for some 50,000 of those came from the USDP coffers. On August 31, Kremin, speaking on the USDP-controlled Inter TV channel, confirmed that soccer lessons would be introduced across Ukraine beginning on September 1.
It is not clear whether the lessons will be compulsory or optional. But it surprised many an observer and outraged the USDP political opponents that one party manipulated the state education system for the upcoming elections. On August 27, the right-wing Reforms and Order–an outspoken USDP critic–issued an open letter to Premier Anatoly Kinakh, asking him to explain the financing of the soccer program. No answer came from Kinakh. President Leonid Kuchma, however, supported the idea in a TV interview on September 1. He also praised Surkis for being concerned and doing something about the future of Ukraine.
It is hard to accuse Surkis of anything: On the surface, he has done nothing wrong. Cash-strapped Ukrainian schools will only be happy to get additional financing, more jobs will be available and Ukraine’s youth will have more fun. But this move shows how easily money can solve an issue on the national agenda, regardless of criticism and without any public discussion. Government connections and a blessing from Kuchma work wonders (Korrespondent.net, August 27; Kievskie Vedomosti, August 29; Inter TV, August 28, September 1).
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