Eastern Europe's largest country outside of Russia stands at a crossroads this weekend, as voters in Ukraine decide between an autocratic leader who leans toward an increasingly autocratic Russia, or a democratic one who wants closer ties to the West.
People who live outside this part of Europe can be forgiven if they think of Ukraine as a backwater. In the 1990s, the former Soviet republic dove into an economic tailspin. What shot up were cronyism and corruption as oligarchs vied for control. The country turned off even foreign investors, hardly the faint of heart.
But backwater no more, Ukraine now laps the shores of the expanded European Union (it's neighbor to newest EU members Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary). Corruption and powerful business tycoons still grip the country, but thanks to modest economic reforms and higher prices for steel exports, Ukraine's economy has picked up since 2000, and this year clocked in an impressive growth rate of more than 13 percent. And Ukrainians are active peacekeepers, with 1,600 troops helping back the US in Iraq.
But even these factors, while reason enough for the world to prick up its ears, play second to the healthy influence a more democratic and Western oriented Ukraine might exert on Europe as a whole.
In Moscow's orbit for centuries, a progressive Ukraine could serve as a beacon, pointing the way to Russia and northern neighbor Belarus, both following a disturbing retro trend to the bad old days of strong-arm rule.
Ukraine's potential, however, is endangered by a presidential campaign marked by violence, intimidation, biased media coverage, and - bizarrely - the alleged (nonfatal) poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, the leading opposition candidate.
Mr. Yushchenko, Ukraine's Western-oriented former prime minister, is running neck-and-neck with Viktor Yanukovich, the country's current prime minister who wants tighter state control over the economy and closer ties to Russia.
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cites "serious violations" in the electoral procedure so far. Observers in and out of the country fear Mr. Yanukovich - backed by Russia's Vladimir Putin, outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and entrenched business interests - will steal the election through fraud.
The EU and US, as well as Ukrainians, should keep up the pressure for a free and fair election. An important nation's future depends on it.