KIEV, Ukraine -- Marred by burned ballots, busloads of black-clad skinheads, and disappearing vote-count records, a mayoral election has set an ominous tone for the presidential race that will test Ukraine's commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
More than a dozen years after it emerged independent from the Soviet Union's collapse, Ukraine -- sprawled between an expanding Europe and a resurgent Russia -- stands at a crossroads.
The Oct. 31 presidential election "is the most important since 1991, because Ukraine is frozen, paralyzed in its development," said Anatoliy Hrytsenko, head of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kiev.
U.S. and European Union officials are looking to the presidential campaign as a crucial sign of whether Ukraine can reinvent itself as a thriving European country.
If Ukraine is weak and undemocratic, they say, its persistent problems -- corruption, poverty, AIDS, human trafficking, a heavily armed but decrepit military -- threaten to spill beyond its borders and even to redraw Cold War lines across Europe.
A peaceful, democratic Ukraine, says a Western diplomat, is a bulwark against any re-emergence of a Russian empire, because no such empire can exist without Texas-sized Ukraine and its 48 million people.
Concerned by the closure of independent media outlets, pressure on opposition politicians and a series of undemocratic elections, Western officials say what matters most is not who wins the presidential vote, but how it's conducted.
Potentially vicious campaign
The presidential election is to replace President Leonid Kuchma, who has said he will not seek a third term. His decade in office has brought hot-and-cold relations with the West, decreasing democracy and a recent spurt of economic growth that has mostly benefited a small, politically connected elite.
"You have people in power currently who stand to lose a tremendous amount -- not in terms of retribution but in sheer leverage over government in promoting their corporate interests," said Kiev-based analyst Markian Bilynskyj. "This campaign is potentially going to be very, very vicious, because there's so much at stake."
"The authorities really have only one way to win: falsification of the elections," said Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister who heads the Our Ukraine bloc and leads opinion polls ahead of the presidential vote.
In April, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was named as the Kuchma camp's presidential candidate, setting the stage for a showdown between what Bilynskyj called "two antithetical poles or ideas of what Ukraine should look like."
Yanukovych represents "the elite ruling Ukraine for 13 years -- a hybrid of business and political interests that's fairly skeptical about the need for democracy," he said, while Yushchenko "can be considered the first genuinely populist political figure in Ukraine."
The outcome could also affect foreign policy: Yushchenko is a Westward-leaning reformer, while Yanukovych is from eastern Ukraine, where ties to Russia are strong. His government has set goals of integration with NATO and the European Union, Kuchma has sent mixed signals lately.
Visiting Kiev this spring, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer said there was confusion about Ukraine's direction. "People are just asking, 'Is it moving toward Europe, is it moving toward another direction?"' he said.