If you forget the name, you’ll remember the braids; the blonde corona framing her head that declares: ‘Ukraine, c’est moi.’ After Angela Merkel, Yulia Tymoshenko is perhaps (Mrs Thatcher excepted) the European woman politician best known outside her own country. Merkel is low-key and plain-speaking, an austere, common-sense pragmatist; Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister of Ukraine, is emotional, self-dramatising, glamorous, Eva Perón in peasant braids. Her supporters have taken to holding up a picture of her head growing out of a field of wheat, a version of the blue (for sky) and yellow (for fields of grain) Ukrainian flag in which Tymoshenko’s face becomes the sun. No one suggests any formal co-ordination, but the odd couple of Merkel and Tymoshenko have ended up drawing attention to something many European politicians would rather ignore: that Ukraine, co-host of the Euro 2012 football championships starting on 8 June, is a swamp of corruption and sub-Putinesque authoritarianism.

Merkel didn’t start the protest over the Ukrainian government’s treatment of Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years last October on an absurd charge. Indeed, cynics in Germany suggest her involvement in the campaign to get Tymoshenko medical treatment abroad is a soft way for the chancellor to refresh her faded human rights credentials. She has nonetheless become the de facto spearhead of the campaign to shame Ukraine’s government into letting Tymoshenko go abroad. On 10 May, a few days after pictures appeared showing bruises and grazes on Tymoshenko’s skin, caused, Tymoshenko said, by a beating at the hands of prison staff, Merkel raised the stakes. In a speech to the Bundestag, she bracketed Ukraine with Belarus as a European country where ‘people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression’. She still hasn’t decided whether she or her ministers will attend Euro 2012, which Ukraine is hosting with its neighbour Poland. The opening ceremony is in Warsaw, but the German team plays its first game in Lviv, in western Ukraine, and on 13 June plays the Netherlands in Kharkiv, the city where Tymoshenko is jailed. The final, which Germany is odds-on favourite to reach with Spain, is also in Ukraine.

Tymoshenko’s trial and imprisonment came not long after she was narrowly beaten in Ukraine’s presidential election by Viktor Yanukovych, who had the backing of the heavily industrialised, largely Russian-speaking eastern half of the country. The charge against her was that while prime minister she tried to get the country out of a deal to buy Russian and Central Asian gas through an opaque trading company part-owned by a billionaire ally of Yanukovych, Dmitry Firtash. Aware, perhaps, that giving a former prime minister a seven-year prison sentence merely for trying to switch her country’s energy supplier made the Yanukovych administration look repressive and vengeful, prosecutors have been casting around for new charges. They may find firmer ground with their efforts to reopen the files on her time as a hugely wealthy gas importer in the 1990s. She has questions to answer about her business relationship with another former premier, Pavlo Lazarenko, currently in the sixth year of an eight-year sentence in California for money laundering, wire fraud and extortion (Ukraine may be the only country to have had two ex-prime ministers in prison, concurrently, on different continents).

But as with the Russian government’s persecution of the billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for there to be justice all the murky 1990s business relationships would have to be investigated. Firtash, for instance, has denied a secret report by the US ambassador to Kiev, revealed by the WikiLeaks cables, which alleged he needed ‘approval’ from the suspected mobster Semyon Mogilevych – currently on the FBI’s ten most wanted list – to set up businesses. Yet he has never explained how he knew Mogilevych, or how it benefited Ukraine for its purchases of gas to go through the Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo, the company, jointly owned by Firtash and the Russian gas giant Gazprom, whose power Tymoshenko tried to curb.

President Yanukovych overcame youthful jail terms for robbery and assault to rise in politics. It was not all he overcame. Several times during his 2010 election campaign he described Chekhov as ‘a great Ukrainian poet’. He is now famous in the east Slav world for two viral YouTube moments. One shows him paying his respects to the war dead in a high wind when, at the exact moment of his solemn bow, a large wreath, mounted on a stand, falls forward and hits him on the head. The other is an exchange at a televised press conference in December. When a journalist, Mustafa Nayem, asked about the sources of his family’s wealth – the helicopter rented by Yanukovych for a million dollars from a company controlled by his son, and the work to expand his large new country estate, also being carried out by his son – the president issued a threat. ‘I’ll tell you, what you’re so enthusiastically digging up really doesn’t interest me much,’ he said.

I’ll tell you why. Because I have very little time for pleasure. Very little. Yesterday, for instance, I got home at about three in the morning, and today I got up at six. Yes. The day before yesterday it was a bit earlier, and so on. So I don’t know what sweet life you’re talking about, and you’re continually talking about my family – I want to say that I don’t envy you. We know and understand each other well. You can work the rest out for yourself.

Yanukovych was speaking a few days after a court had cleared his political mentor, the former president Leonid Kuchma, of ordering the murder of a journalist who worked for the same website as Nayem. Secret recordings of Kuchma apparently suggesting ways to kidnap the journalist, Georgy Gongadze, who was found decapitated in 2000, were ruled inadmissible.

Does any of this mean that a political boycott of Euro 2012 is the way to go? So far the most prominent Briton to cry off is Prince William, but it’s not clear if this has anything to do with Tymoshenko. Many would see the possibility of politicians refusing to attend football matches as a boon. There’s been no serious suggestion of a boycott by players or fans. Despite the presence of John Terry and a Russian oligarch, the person who really spoiled the pictures of Chelsea celebrating their recent European Cup win was George Osborne, standing grinning among the officials.

Ukraine’s Polish co-hosts are telling the Germans not to snub Euro 2012, arguing that engagement, not the cold shoulder, is the route for a troubled young nation (the first children born since Ukraine became independent are not quite 21). Yanukovych may be odious, and Tymoshenko harshly treated, but Ukraine’s geography and history mean the president doesn’t have the control over Ukraine that Lukashenko has over Belarus or Putin has over Russia. Yanukovych’s power base in the Soviet-nostalgist east is countered by the romantic, sometimes sinister nationalism of western Ukraine and an aspiring middle class centred on Kiev that yearns for Ukraine to be a ‘normal country’, by which they mean ‘like somewhere in northwestern Europe’.

A political boycott of Euro 2012 would be embarrassing for Yanukovych. But the real leverage Merkel has – which is surely why Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions has hired the US public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to promote the government’s case against Tymoshenko abroad – is the threat to block Ukraine’s trade deals with the EU. What the sporting boycott side of the story illustrates is a gap in the fabric of protocol. How does a leader register contempt for another government’s treatment of a political prisoner if she accepts its invitation to a party? OK, don’t go. But how does she show she cares about the people of that country if she doesn’t turn up? OK, go.

Turning up and making a scene – going to Ukraine but demanding to visit Tymoshenko in prison, for instance – is the kind of compromise that gives diplomats nightmares. At least the Germans are thinking ahead. One reason the issue isn’t brighter on the radar in Britain may be that the expectations for the England team at Euro 2012 (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland didn’t qualify) are so low; they’re widely expected not to reach the later stages of the competition. But all England’s group stage games are in Ukraine, including one against the home team in Yanukovych’s stronghold of Donetsk, and Chelsea’s astonishing victory against a German side in the European Cup is resounding proof of the theorem that football’s a funny game. As David Cameron consoled Merkel with a hug after they watched the penalty shootout at the G8 summit, it might have been a good time to start remembering about Yulia Tymoshenko.

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