One descends the steps of Kharkiv’s train station to a Soviet-era square with post-Soviet pretensions. Ukraine’s azure-and-yellow is teaming with Poland’s red-and-white next month, in what was originally seen as a boon to the former’s EU prospects, to co-host the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. A floral arrangement in the centre of the square depicts a ball flying through the air with a trail of flowers streaming out behind it. Svelte mannequins in flag-coloured tracksuits adorn the windows of sportswear shops along Sumska and Pushkinskaya streets.

On Prospekt Gagarina, named for the world’s first cosmonaut and not far from our hotel, the concrete skeleton of a long-stalled commercial development sits languishing. The spherical trade and exhibition centre was supposed to be finished in 2009, but the city took over tournament hosting duties from Dnipropetrovsk that same year, the site’s developer, the Kharkiv Project Institute, shifted its attention to stadium upgrades and new hotels, and the thing has been sitting open to the elements opposite the city’s central bus station ever since. Luckily, it’s shaped like a soccer ball in a half-cube, open-window display box, and doesn’t seem entirely out of place.

Like this year’s APEC summit in Vladivostok and the Winter Olympics in Sochi in two years, Ukraine’s Euro 2012 makeover is largely an attempt to boost its image abroad. Unlike Russia, however, which seeks to present itself as a global power beholden to no one, Ukraine is rather more interested in presenting itself as a model European democracy. Or at least it was. A lot has changed since the country won the right to co-host the tournament, under Orange Revolution leader and subsequent president Viktor Yushchenko, in 2007.

That was a year before the ongoing rivalry between Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, finally reached its zenith, splitting their coalition and its voter base in two, leading to a drastic decline in economic growth and a general derailing of the government’s reform agenda, and clearing the way for the one-time vote-stealing target of their shared ire, Viktor Yanukovych, to get himself elected the next time a presidential poll rolled around.

Since becoming president two years ago, Yanukovych has turned his back on Europe — albeit not to the extent that some expected — while zealously persecuting his political enemies and rolling back several of their reforms. Far from a celebration of Ukraine’s growing closeness to the European Union, Euro 2012 is fast shaping up to be a glaring indictment of the country’s growing isolation from it.

Kharkiv is arguably the epicentre of this regression into repression. In addition to being the largest city in the country’s Russian-speaking, industrial east, where the majority of the president’s supporters are concentrated, it is also home to the prison in which he has sent his most famous opponent. Tymoshenko has been held in Kachanovskaya female penal colony since last October, when she was sentenced to seven years for abuse of office. (One needn’t be a Tymoshenko supporter to condemn her imprisonment as blatanly political, either. Even among those who believe her to be guilty, such as the editor-in-chief of Ukraine’s Kommersant, Valery Kalnysh, there is a widely held belief that the country is witnessing “a show trial against the opposition”.) It wasn’t until Tymoshenko was allegedly beaten by the colony’s deputy head on April 20, however, that the EU stirred from the bout of co-called “Ukraine fatigue” that has been afflicting it since Yanukovych’s ascent to power two years ago and finally started to take a hard line.

While European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule yesterday insisted that the EU Council had “never used the word boycott” in its discussions about Tymoshenko’s treatment, it nevertheless remains true that EU president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso have said they won’t attend any matches in the country. Earlier this month, the presidents of 13 European countries declined to attend a summit in Yalta in protest against that same treatment, leading the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to “postpone it until a later date”. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko’s face appears on every second tree in Kharkiv, on black-and-white home-made stickers calling for her immediate release.

For all the EU’s bluster, however, it is arguable that it has played a role in letting things get so out of hand. Barroso’s announcement that he won’t be attending Ukrainian matches is all very good and well, but one might ask where he has been for the past two years, as the country’s rankings on international corruption and freedom indexes have gone into freefall and the government has slowly but surely turned the screws on opposition protesters and politicians alike. Even when Tymoshenko was sentenced last year, Barroso insisted that discussions with the country on EU association, free trade and even eventual membership would continue unabated, while Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament, said that he was “sure that we should continue our negotiations on the association agreement” because “we should not punish the Ukrainian people.” But because no one wanted to push Ukraine towards Russia and Vladimir Putin’s Customs and Eurasian Union projects, or simply because the country is a headache that it’s easier to ignore than to treat, no one deigned to punish Yanukovych, either, with the result that he was able to continue punishing the Ukrainian people himself. If the United State’s Cuba policy is all stick, in other words, then the EU’s Ukraine one has for too long been almost exclusively carrot. As Kyiv-Mohyla University’s Olexiy Haran told The Economist earlier this month, Europe’s reluctance to criticise Yanukovych during the first two years of his term was taken by the president as “carte banche [to] do what he wants”.

At least part of what he wants to do is obvious: he wants to destroy his enemies, and he wants to destroy them conclusively. A separate trial against against Tymoshenko will next month attempt to lump her with an additional 12-year sentence on tax-evasion charges. Her appeal against the current seven-year one will be heard in the last week of the tournament. For the Soviet-era strongmen of the post-Soviet sphere, politics remains a zero-sum game. Europe could and should have blown the whistle on it earlier.