ORANGE banners flutter from the trees in the streets of Kiev, and the pavements are a sea of orange ribbons and scarves.
If the vote in today’s run-off presidential election were confined to the Ukrainian capital, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko would be home and dry, resulting in a seismic shift in Ukraine’s relationship with the West.
But Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate of the old political establishment, has strong backing in the countryside, especially in the east of the country, where his blue and white colours are as dominant as the orange of Yushchenko is in the west.
Ukraine, the former Soviet republic once considered the most likely to embrace democracy, is at the crossroads.
Thirteen years after Ukrainians voted for independence from Soviet rule they must now choose between Yanukovych, backed by an increasingly authoritarian Russia, and Yushchenko, who aims to draw Ukraine closer to a free-market Europe.
In the first round three weeks ago, Yushchenko won a narrow victory, with a difference of just under 156,000 votes. Today’s run-off is taking place because no candidate gained more than 50% of the votes.
The first round was tarnished by a huge effort to discredit Yushchenko, silence the opposition media, and dominate the election commissions, all of which led international monitors to say the elections did not meet international standards.
A 10-day gap between the vote and the final count produced bitter recriminations. The day before the results were announced, outgoing president Leonid Kuchma fired the heads of 11 local district administrations. Ten of the 11 regions were areas Yushchenko had won.
There were even claims that Yushchenko had been poisoned. He was rushed to hospital in Austria, emerging later with his face covered in pock marks.
The election will produce a verdict on a decade of rule by Kuchma, who has endorsed Yanukovych. Under Kuchma, scandals spread and corruption was rife. Independent journalists were hounded and several reporters killed, with the opposition implicating Kuchma in the most celebrated case, the murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Kuchma denied any involvement.
Further international criticism followed the sale of a big steel company to his son-in-law.
Yushchenko has labelled his opponent "Kuchma-3": "The current authorities and Kuchma are Siamese twins," he told a TV audience last week. "They are the same thing. The team that Yanukovych represents is Kuchma’s team. It is an old team with refined, powdered faces."
He accused the government of carrying out "family privatisation". "Look at the authorities today, from heads of state administrations and central authorities," he said. "They are either in Ukraine’s top 100 wealthiest people or Europe’s. So there are rich people embodied by the authorities on one side and 47 million of a poor nation on the other."
One of the most bitter election issues is Ukraine’s relations with Russia. The 1991 independence referendum was widely seen as a deliberate move away from the Soviet Union after 300 years of domination by Moscow.
Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, and was rewarded by the West with financial and political support. But under Kuchma it has moved back into the Russian camp.
At the heart of the election is the split between nationalist western Ukraine, which backs Yushchenko, and the Russian-speaking industrial east, behind the prime minister. Some observers even warn of the danger of bloodshed between the west, which is heavily Catholic and was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the east, which is Orthodox.
Yanukovych promises to make Russian a state language and give dual nationality to citizens of both countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Ukraine twice in the past few weeks to bolster support for Yanukovych. He arrived in Ukraine on the eve of the first round and took part in a military parade on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Kiev from Nazi occupation. The parade was the last big event in Yanukovych’s campaign.
Last week Yanukovych told an interviewer: "We are urged to run to Europe where no one is waiting for us. There's no choice for us between the European Union and Russia. We are tied to Russia by culture and blood. The only question left is how Ukraine is going to build economic cooperation with its neighbours.
"I used to be a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I don't feel ashamed of it. On the contrary, I am proud of it. My life in the Soviet Union and my membership in the Communist Party gave me the priority of the idea of justice and equality.
"Ukraine and Russia together will shortly be able to compete with US and European companies on the markets of third-world states. Ukrainian-Russian joint aircraft and rocket building hold much promise on international markets which could be ruined by Ukraine joining Nato."
While a Yanukovych presidency would be a setback for the cause of Ukrainian integration with Europe, a President Yushchenko could expect the European Union to confer economic benefits on Ukraine by giving it the "market economy" status that it withheld from Kuchma.
Yushchenko has also pledged to combat corruption, increase social spending, reduce the army, simplify business registration and recall troops from Iraq.
The two candidates are neck and neck. Recent polls show Yushchenko with an advantage greater than the statistical margin for error.
But once again the powerful government machine is working flat out for Yanukovych, and electoral abuse is rife. Special police units have been formed to intimidate the opposition, criminals are being paid to masquerade as opposition supporters and cause trouble, and opposition observers have been jailed.
Tape recordings have surfaced which allegedly implicate Yanukovych in talk of buying parliamentary votes and smashing the heads of disobedient journalists against the wall.
On the other hand, Yushchenko has won the backing of the candidate who came third in the first round, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz. If his first-round supporters all transfer to Yushchenko, the challenger could add 5.81% to his total.
Ivan Lozowy, who runs an Internet newsletter, the Ukraine Insider, said: "Whether Yushchenko can hold on to his lead and turn his current edge into a winning margin is anyone’s guess. And if he cannot, the fear lingers that there may be street clashes between opposition supporters."
EAST MEETS WEST
SLIGHTLY smaller than France or Texas, Ukraine lies north of the Black Sea and borders Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova.
Of its population of more than 47 million, 73% are ethnic Ukrainian, 22% Russian, with dozens of other ethnic minorities.
The site of the medieval Kievan Rus state, Ukraine endured long periods of Mongol-Tatar, Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule. During the 18th century most of Ukraine was absorbed by the Russian empire. Short-lived independence after 1917 was followed by Stalin’s terror and famine, and Nazi occupation. Ukraine finally gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire.
With some of the best soil in Europe, Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s breadbasket. It also produced up to third of Soviet weaponry. The country registered significant economic growth in 2004 after years of post-Soviet decline. Market-style reforms have been adopted, but corruption remains rampant. Ukraine remains energy-dependent on Russia, its key trade partner.
But the country aspires to be part of the European Union and Nato, while maintaining warm relations with Russia and other former Soviet republics. In an attempt to restore relations with the United States hurt by allegations of arms sales to Saddam Hussein and problems with democratic and press freedoms, Ukraine deployed some 1,600 troops as a part of the US-led coalition in Iraq.