Just five years after Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which saw hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians mobilize peacefully to reject electoral fraud and embrace open democracy and a Westward path for their country, the country appears poised to shift back into Russia's waiting arms.
In a shock to many in the West, the front-runner in Sunday's presidential election is Viktor Yanukovych, whose alleged rigging of the tense 2004 presidential polls triggered three weeks of street protests in Kiev's central Maidan square that brought an unprecedented third round of voting that elected current President Viktor Yushchenko.
Mr. Yushchenko, the leader of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" who pried open a historic window on the West and tried to drag his former Soviet nation through it, is in trouble, running at a dismal 3 percent support in most opinion polls.
His former political ally, the fiery populist Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is faring a bit better. With an estimated 15 percent backing, she seems set to win second place on Sunday and go forward to a decisive second round that would be slated for Feb. 7.
But most experts agree that Ms. Tymoshenko, a talented and flexible politician, has since made her peace with the Kremlin and, if elected, would be unlikely to press ahead with key elements of Mr. Yushchenko's agenda that deeply angered Moscow, such as joining NATO and evicting the Russian navy from its Black Sea base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
An opinion survey published by a Russian agency this week suggested dark horse candidate Sergei Tigipko, a wealthy businessman who has spent $11 million to build his image, might possibly edge out Tymoshenko for the coveted second place slot on Sunday. But, like other front runners, Mr. Tigipko has stated no views that might cause offence in Moscow.
In fact, the Kremlin appears so pleased with the geopolitical turn of events in Ukraine that it announced this week it will immediately send an ambassador to Kiev, even though the post has remained vacant since last summer and President Dmitry Medvedev vowed not to fill it as long as Yushchenko remained in office.
"Russia has not offered any support to any candidate in the Ukrainian elections, but we do see that all the likely winners are people who take a more realistic view of cooperation with Russia [than Yushchenko]," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee. "I am quite certain that after these elections, Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve markedly," he says.
Wedged between Europe's eastern doorstep and Russia's backyard, Ukraine – if it does indeed shift eastward – could add ballast to Moscow's tussles with Europe over energy, politics, and security issues such as NATO expansion.
Ukrainians: Yushchenko squandered historic opportunity
Many Ukrainians blame Yushchenko for squandering the historic opportunity created by the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko rapidly fell out with his main ally, Tymoshenko, whom he fired as prime minister within months of their joint victory. By last year, after Tymoshenko had clawed her way back into the premier's job through parliamentary action, the squabbling between the two had virtually paralyzed the government.
"Most Ukrainians remember the Orange Revolution with warmth as a moment of solidarity, enthusiasm, and genuine democracy," says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, an independent Kiev think tank. "But there is a widespread perception that politicians only used it as an instrument to gain power, and then forgot all the promises they made during those days."
Critics say Yushchenko pushed pro-Western and Ukrainian nationalist ideas too forcefully for a country where opinion surveys show about two-thirds of the population oppose joining NATO and about 1 in 3 people is a native speaker of Russian.
"Yushchenko did not behave like the president of the whole people, but as if he were the leader of one part of the population acting to suppress the other part," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center for Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. "By the end of his term he looked more like a nationalist and a Russophobe than a democrat, and that was not going to help him in a such a diverse country, where polls show only about 10 percent of the population support extreme nationalist ideas."
A hoped-for influx of foreign investment following the Orange Revolution never materialized, and when the global financial crisis hit last year it sent Ukraine's economy plummeting by 15 percent and slashed the value of its currency, the hryvna, by half.
Did Russia outmaneuver Yushchenko?
Moscow, stung by Kiev's westward turn under Yushchenko, soon dropped its earlier system of energy subsidies and demanded that Ukraine start paying global market prices for Russian gas and oil. In a series of bitter "gas wars," including pipeline shutdowns that sometimes left downstream European customers of Russian energy shivering, Moscow compelled Kiev to accept the new terms
Some Ukrainian experts ruefully admit that in the gas wars, and other geopolitical battles, the Russians outmaneuvered Yushchenko, leaving Ukraine looking to Europeans like a capricious and unreliable partner rather than a victim of Kremlin strong-arming.
"When Russia talks to the West, they have the diplomatic, political, and other kinds of influence to move things their way," says Vira Nanivska, director of the City Institute, an independent political research center in Lviv. "Ukraine is like a baby compared to Russia in these matters. Our big achievement over these years is that Ukraine is still on the map."
Still, lasting positive changes
But Ms. Nanivska says Ukraine's open and competitive democracy, consolidated in the Orange Revolution, is a "solid historical fact" unlikely to be undone even if Ukraine takes a pro-Russian turn.
"You would not be seeing the possibility of the opposition returning to power if we did not have a fully functioning democracy," she says. "Today in Ukraine there is absolutely no fear of the ruling party, whoever they may be, and this is what the Orange Revolution gave us."
But there are concerns that Ukraine could be destabilized following Sunday's voting, especially if the results are close. One worrisome opinion survey released last week by the independent Ukrainian Sociological Service in Kiev found that 57 percent of Ukrainians think the election will be rigged. All sides have accused each other of preparing to falsify the vote tallies and threaten, if that happens, to summon their supporters into the streets to replay the Orange Revolution.
"So we must hope for a clear result, and one that is open and transparent, or we might again face attempts to change the decision in the streets," he says.
Another dark episode that is, rightly or wrongly, associated with Mr. Yanukovych is the still unsolved dioxin poisoning of his main competitor Yushchenko early in the 2004 campaign, which has left the Ukrainian leader's face blotched and disfigured to this day.