Two very different elections, held within a week of each other in the neighboring republics of Belarus and Ukraine, illustrate a deepening schism between former Soviet states. Some are moving decisively toward democracy, while others are sliding into the political orbit of an increasingly authoritarian, energy-rich Russia.
In contrast to the tight government control that largely squelched opposition forces in Belarus ahead of last weekend's elections, Kiev's main square is a veritable bazaar of competing voices. Nearly 50 rival political parties are heading into the final leg of parliamentary polls slated for Sunday. The roughly 2,000 foreign observers here have noted no serious irregularities, and Ukrainian experts say these are the freest and most open elections in the country's history.
"There is absolute transparency, and an equal playing field for all parties," says Alexander Chernenko, an analyst with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a grass-roots monitoring group. "There is no fear, no coercion. People feel this is irreversible."
The same could not be said of Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko, Moscow's sole European ally, was elected to a third term last Sunday with an 83 percent majority that few experts believe to be genuine.
During the campaign, police arrested hundreds of opposition workers, closed most independent media outlets, and cracked down on nongovernmental groups. Protesters occupied the capital, Minsk's, central square in an effort to force fresh elections, as happened in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution," but by Thursday only a few hundred remained.
Nearly 100 have been arrested since Sunday, human rights groups say, but the key reason for their fading hopes may be a sullen lack of public response.
"Lukashenko succeeds because a big part of society acquiesces," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, vice chair of the opposition United Civil Party in Minsk. "This longing for a firm hand that will provide stability and order is very deep among Belarussians. Once you've got him, you have to let that strong man do whatever he wants."
Many Ukrainians feared a Belarus scenario in 2004 when presidential elections were allegedly rigged in favor of Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who supports economic integration and political alliance with Russia. Tens of thousands of people thronged to the square and stayed for nearly two weeks, until the supreme court overturned the polls. In a fresh round of voting, Ukrainians elected pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.
Ukraine's democratic upsurge in 2004 may have been the key reason Mr. Lukashenko has cracked down so hard - with Moscow's support - on Belarussian opposition and civil society groups, experts say.
"That wave of color revolutions scared Lukashenko, and it made the Kremlin back away from any idea of holding dialogue with any other political forces in Belarus," says Oleg Manaev, a sociologist in Minsk. "The Ukrainian example looks like poison to them."
Experts say that Lukashenko, who has used Russian subsidies and strict economic planning to improve living standards, could probably have won a fair election - though foreign observers judged that nothing of the sort took place in Belarus last week. Ukrainians, meanwhile, have no interest in following the Belarus model - despite indirect pressure from Russia such as the January cutoff of crucial natural gas supplies to the country after it refused to agree to a quadrupling in price. Belarus, meanwhile, pays just one-fifth the market price for its energy from Moscow.
"The Belarussian road means dependency on Russia for cheap energy and other favors, which must be purchased at a steep political price," says Oleksandr Shushko, an analyst with Kiev's independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. "Ukrainians have turned away from that; we made a choice to join Europe and the world."
But Ukraine is deeply divided between the industrialized, russified east - Yanukovych's stronghold - and its Ukrainian-speaking Western provinces, where aspirations to join Europe and NATO are strong. Though the Kremlin has not interfered directly in these elections, as it did in 2004, the economic fallout of the gas dispute could aggravate the country's postrevolution slump. The GDP has fallen from 12.1 percent in 2004 to 2.6 percent in 2005.
"Yanukovych was able to tell his supporters that this wouldn't have happened if he had been president," says Mr. Shushko.
So in an ironic twist, Ukraine's exuberant new democracy could bring the former president back to power - this time with full legitimacy.
One key factor working in Yanukovych's favor is disunity among Orange leaders. A survey completed this week by the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) puts Yanukovych's Party of Regions in the lead with 37 percent. Trailing are the parties of estranged Orange leaders, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc with 19 percent and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine at 18 percent. "Yanukovych has consolidated his electorate, while the Orange parties have split and squabbled among themselves," says Volodimir Paniotto, director general of KIIS. The split between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, whose firing of Tymoshenko last September opened a breach in Ukraine's pro-democracy forces, "has been Yanukovych's main advantage," says Mr. Paniotto.
While Lukashenko appears to have safely ensconced himself in power through dubious polls, Ukraine may face protracted political crisis thanks to its embrace of democracy. If Sunday's vote produces no parliamentary majority, the new legislature may fail to form a government, paralyzing the state.
But experts say there will be no backpedaling for Ukraine. "Democracy is already in the [people's] way of thinking," says Dimitry Vydrin, director of the European Institute of Integration and Development in Kiev. "We've made our choice, and we're not going back".