By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - It was never meant to be like this. When Ukraine was named co-host of Europe's biggest soccer feast in 2009, its leaders hailed the award as a milestone on the road to joining the European mainstream.
A delighted Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister, told her compatriots her government had scraped together "every kopeck" to make the dream possible.`
Her jubilant tone foresaw the former Soviet republic turning a confident, smiling face to the world in the month-long Euro-2012 soccer tournament which it will co-host with Poland, its cheer-leader in Europe.
That was in December 2009.
Now, with the first games to be played in Ukraine on June 9, Tymoshenko lies in prison on hunger strike, nursing bruises after what she said was a beating by prison guards. Images of her show her trademark peasant braids lying in a forlorn tress across her shoulder.
Western leaders, some of whose national teams will compete in Euro-2012, have reacted with horror.
Led by Germany, leaders of several European Union countries have called off scheduled visits to Ukraine in protest at the treatment meted out by President Viktor Yanukovich's leadership.
Amid talk of a possible boycott of the June 8 ceremonial opening by European politicians, Ukraine has accused of European powers of resorting to Cold War tactics.
A series of mystery bomb blasts in the city of Dnipropetrovsk last week which injured 30 people have raised security concerns.
The government says they were organized by forces out to destabilize the nation. Identikits of suspects have been issued but there have been no arrests.
The opposition has hinted darkly that the bombs could be the work of authorities and law enforcement bodies with the aim of diverting attention from the Tymoshenko affair.
The trial and sentencing of Tymoshenko to seven years in jail for alleged abuse of power has already cost Ukraine a landmark political agreement with the European Union. Its signing has been put on indefinite hold.
It has even put Yanukovich off-side with his country's big neighbor and former Soviet master, Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev just last week said: "The persecution of political opponents (in Ukraine) is absolutely unacceptable."
Some believe Yanukovich, also under pressure from the United States on the issue, will release Tymoshenko -- or at least let her go to Germany for medical treatment.
But he has refused to budge on the issue since sentence was passed on Tymoshenko last October, despite intense EU pressure.
With EU politicians apparently prepared to take only piecemeal action ahead of the Euros without concerted sanctions, it seems more likely he will seek to ride out the Europeans' displeasure and shrug off poor publicity during the tournament.
"It is a kind of last attempt by the EU to change the course of things in Ukraine," said Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. "It's very close to a deadlock. I would not see any bright future for Ukraine's relations with the European Union."
The 2004-5 Orange Revolution street protests against the sleaze and corruption of the old guard made Ukraine many friends in the West. It continued to bathe in the after-glow of that popularity long after the "Orange" leaders came to power, fell out among themselves and were voted out of office.
So for Ukraine a lot of the European reaction is unexpected and seems unfair - especially given its huge efforts to overhaul a ramshackle infrastructure in double quick-time and make it fit to host one of Europe's biggest sporting events.
In less than two years, it has laid thousands of kilometers of new road, built new airport terminals and laid on high-speed train services between Euro locations.
Kiev's Olympisky stadium, where the July 1 final will be played, has been completely revamped from the outdated Soviet relic which first opened in 1923.
UEFA president Michel Platini, who has toured Euro venues over the past two years and often chided Ukraine along the way, recognized the huge effort. "Bravo to all responsible for Ukraine's preparations,", he said late last year, giving a thumbs up.
But long-standing prejudices and suspicions among Ukraine's critics that the country was too much of a lightweight to be entrusted with the Euros have persisted.
Ukraine lends itself easily to stereotypes and cliches.
Chernobyl. Borshch soup. The Orange Revolution. The gigantic Klitschko boxing brothers. Europe's granary. Elegant women and dating agencies. Bread-basket, bride-basket.
Platini, for all his otherwise generous comments, added another label last month when he harangued Ukraine over the sky-high prices of accommodation on offer to visiting fans.
Ukraine's hoteliers were "bandits and swindlers" for jacking up prices tenfold in the four Euro-hosting cities of Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk, he said.
The Kiev government, which expects at least one million fans to visit Ukraine, has sought to curb hoteliers with anti-trust investigations and a planned deal with a low-cost airline that officials say will offer $300 return trips from London.
All the same, there are signs that many fans are opting to stay at home and follow their national team's fortunes on television rather than make the trek to Ukraine.
Yanukovich, a heavily built hard man who has run Ukraine since February 2010 after narrowly beating Tymoshenko for the presidency, may still hope the Euro competition will infuse people with some joy amid mounting economic woes that threaten his party's success in an end-of-year election.
He has a lot of prestige among Ukraine's powerful elite riding on a successful tournament.
Professional football in Ukraine is a potent symbol of wealth and power, impossible to separate from its macho, big money politics.
A successful football club is a ‘must-have' for some oligarchs. Many top Ukrainian league clubs are in the hands of wealthy industrialists.
Take, for example, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, billionaire owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk club who bank-rolled Yanukovich's election campaign in 2010.
The lavish Donbass Arena stadium he has built in the eastern mining town will stage one of the Euro semi-finals. Akhmetov, who Forbes says has a net worth of $16 billion, will not want a Euro flop.
But freeing Tymoshenko, his nemesis for years, still does not seem an option for Yanukovich. The charismatic opposition politician directly threatened the business interests of many of Ukraine's oligarchs when she was in power.
Commentators say Yanukovich has nursed a deep grudge since his humiliation in the 2004 Orange Revolution which she led and which deprived him of the presidency when his election was judged rigged and overturned.
Sharp of tongue, she went out of her way to belittle him in a later campaign for the presidency in 2010 which she lost.
"Yanukovich only gets irritated by statements on boycotts and is very unlikely to decide as the EU and Americans want him to decide," said Shumylo-Tapiola.
"It is personally difficult for him to release Tymoshenko. One of the reasons is that he feels he will look weak at home," she said.
Boycott threats by European politicians are multiplying.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus and German President Joachim Gauck have cancelled participation in a summit of central European presidents in the Ukrainian Black Sea resort of Yalta on May 11-12 over Tymoshenko's case.
A German government spokesman has said any visit by Chancellor Angela Merkel during the tournament will be linked to her fate.
And in Brussels, a spokeswoman for European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he would not take part in any events in Ukraine because of the Tymoshenko affair.
Ukrainians themselves are divided over the rights and wrongs of the Tymoshenko case and Europe's reaction.
"Boycott is not what football is about. Football is football and it should be allowed to take place in any conditions and in any weather," said Serhiy, a passer-by on a Kiev street.
But Anatoly Shirokov, an employee at the Ukrainian national academy, backed European politicians in putting pressure on Yanukovich. "Europe is playing by its rules and that is where human rights are observed, where there is transparent democratic exercise of power and where you do not see parodies like the mock trial of Yulia Tymoshenko."
But Tymoshenko seems able to create trouble for Yanukovich by just lying in prison. Kharkiv, the city where she is being held, will stage three matches in the Euro qualifying stages.
With the city flooded with foreign journalists, the Yanukovich leadership is aware of the fertile PR ground that Tymoshenko will be able to exploit without even stirring from her prison bed.
(Additional reporting by Mihailo Yelchev; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood)