Euro 2012 Brings Ukraine Closer To Europe

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Euro 2012 football tournament is well underway in Poland and Ukraine.

Ukraine's border guards have had a makeover. The host country for the Euro 2012 football championship wants to give visitors a good first impression, so its guards at Borispol airport near Kiev have taken part in hair and make-up 'master classes'. Borispol airport will be the Ukraine's main air hub during the event.

It can take some 20 hours to cross between the two countries - so the co-hosted tournament presents unique challenges on the border as fans follow their teams from one city to the next.

With around 1 million football (soccer) fans expected to cross the Polish and Ukrainian frontier during the European Championship, border authorities on both sides are cooperating in a rare show of unity.

Ukrainian guards check passports on Polish territory.

Special lanes allow fans to bypass the normal traffic.

Guards with the EU’s border agency Frontex are posted here to help out.

Dutch police officer René Hugen is at the Medyka crossing.

“The people are reminded, I think approximately 2 or 3 kilometers before the border, to choose the right lane so the delay for them will be as low as possible," said Hugen.

Border guards are on the look out for human traffickers taking advantage of the simplified controls.

Smuggling from Ukraine and Russia is also big business.

The EU says tobacco contraband costs around $12.5 billion in lost taxes every year.

Smugglers often hide their contraband on trains.

Criminal networks on the Polish side collect the goods and sell them in western Europe, where they can go for 10 times what they cost.

Captain Mariusz Korczynski is head of the local Polish border guard.

“Sometimes we find cell phones hidden underneath the carriages, they are used to lead smugglers to the carriage where the cigarettes are hidden," said Korczynski.

In the north, the Bug River divides the two countries - and smugglers and illegal migrants often try to exploit this unfenced border.

When it’s dry, it is possible to walk across parts of this river.

But in the last few weeks and during the Euro 2012 tournament there have been heavy rains in Poland, so the river levels are swollen.

That means the smugglers are looking to use boats across the river.

Further south, Polish border guards patrol the mountainous frontier on horseback.

This allows them to see over the tall grass.

On the opposite side, Ukrainian border guards use Russian-made vehicles to negotiate the terrain.

Colonel Krook Ivanovich is commander of the local border guard unit.

“We introduced some innovations like this that make border crossing easier without compromising security, as we do not exclude that there might be attempts to smuggle weapons, drugs or cigarettes," said Ivanovich.

Several European leaders have refused to follow their national teams to Ukraine, alleging maltreatment of the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

It’s cast a shadow over a tournament that was meant to give a boost to Ukraine’s European relations.

Still with the traffic flowing freely, many fans who spoke to VOA say Poland and Ukraine are putting on a good competition.

Source: Voice of America