WASHINGTON — Imagine that an imperial-minded president resolved to intervene aggressively in a strategic country with a fragile democracy to ensure the election of a favored client. To do so, he summoned his nominee and publicly embraced him; channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to his campaign; arranged for television stations broadcasting in the target country to openly boost the favorite and slander his opponent; opened hundreds of polling stations in his own country so that "expatriates" could vote; and, to top it off, scheduled a trip to the foreign capital three days before the election to stump in person.
Even Hamid Karzai or Iyad Allawi would be shamed by such a campaign, if it were launched by President Bush. What's more, the rest of the world would loudly condemn American interventionism. Yet Viktor Yanukovich, prime minister and presidential candidate in Ukraine, has humbly welcomed all this and more from Russian President Vladimir Putin - and Western governments have responded with a studied silence.
What's strange about this is that Ukraine's outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, was probably right when he recently boasted that the election of his replacement next Sunday would rank second only to Iraq's upcoming vote in geopolitical importance. The contest between Mr. Yanukovich and challenger Viktor Yushchenko will probably determine whether a European country the size of France, with 50 million citizens, remains an imperfect democracy or slides toward authoritarian rule. And it may well resolve whether 2004, like 1947-48, is remembered as a year when a Moscow-orchestrated mix of rigged elections and dirty tricks turned several Eastern European countries into satellites.
Sound exaggerated? Consider what has been happening in Belarus and Ukraine, which lie between Russia and the expanded European Union and NATO. Last week, Belarus held a referendum on making strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who already has agreed to reunite his country with Russia, the equivalent of president-for-life. An exit poll conducted by the Gallup Organization showed that the proposition failed. But when Belarusan authorities announced it had passed with 77 percent of the vote, Russia quickly pronounced the vote free and fair.
In Kiev, meanwhile, Yanukovich was pronouncing himself touched by the news that Mr. Putin would visit Kiev this week to appear with him at a parade celebrating the city's capture by Soviet troops 60 years ago. "I will forever be grateful," said the burly prime minister, who was publicly kissed by Putin at his home in Moscow this month. And Putin began his three-day visit Tuesday with an hourlong TV broadcast, praising Yanukovich's government for achieving stable economic growth but stopping short of an open endorsement.
He should be. According to opposition sources, Russia has supplied half of the $600 million that Yanukovich is spending on his campaign - including a $200 million payment from the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom. Russian state television, which is seen by most Ukrainians, has campaigned unrelentingly for Yanukovich. Pro-Yanukovich billboards have appeared across Moscow, and expatriate Ukrainians will have the chance to vote at some 400 polling places in Russia. Russian political advisers have arrived in Kiev to conduct on-the-spot spin. Russian pop singers are touring the country and boosting Yanukovich at concerts.
In return, Yanukovich promised Putin at their last meeting that he would end Ukraine's policy of seeking membership in NATO, promote an open border and dual citizenship for Russians and Ukrainians, make Russian the country's second official language, and subordinate Ukraine's bid for membership in the World Trade Organization to the requirements of forming the "single economic space," the Putin initiative to create a new union with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Yanukovich would also entrench Putin's brand of authoritarian politics in his country. Already Ukrainian media, like their Russian counterparts, are delivering orchestrated and one-sided support to Yanukovich, while many opposition media outlets have been closed down. Mr. Yushchenko's rallies have frequently been disrupted by thugs, and the candidate himself fell mysteriously and gravely ill last month - the result, he says, of a poisoning meant to eliminate him.
Despite all this, Yushchenko continues to hold a single-digit lead in the polls. That's because the former banker and prime minister is responsible for many of the free-market reforms that have allowed the Ukrainian economy to flourish, and because he promises that he will continue to lead an independent and democratic country toward partnership with the West. The Bush administration and other Western governments hope for his success but privately expect that Yanukovich will win or steal the election in a mid-November runoff. Putin, they know, will aid and abet that fraud - and then set about integrating Ukraine into his authoritarian bloc. No one has challenged the Russian president on his aggressive imperialism - which probably means that it will grow.
• Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. © The Washington Post.