An epic battle is shaping up in Ukraine as two bitter rivals, Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, prepare to slug it out over the next three weeks for the dubious prize of leading a nation that's economically devastated and politically disillusioned as well as profoundly divided between its Russian-speaking, pro-Moscow eastern provinces and its more nationalist, Europe-leaning west.
President Viktor Yushchenko, who was lIfted to power five years ago on the wings of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution, went down in flames in this presidential election's first round Sunday, winning barely 5 percent of the votes, according to the nearly-complete official first count on Monday.
The second round, pitting frontrunner Mr. Yanukovich, who won about 35 percent support in the first round, against Ms. Tymoshenko, who garnered about 25 percent of the votes, is slated for Feb. 7.
With Mr. Yushchenko out of the running, much of the East-West geopolitical tension that has marred Ukraine's domestic politics in recent years may now dissipate, leaving the contenders to address the country's dire economic crisis, its endemic official corruption (Ukraine holds 146th place on the Berlin-based Transparency International's annual global corruption ratings), and the status of the Russian language, which is spoken by about a third of Ukrainians.
Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have signaled that they would go slow on many of the anti-Moscow policies that Yushchenko championed, including speedy NATO membership, integration with the European Union, and plans to evict the Russian Navy from its historic Black Sea headquarters in Crimea.
But experts say the contest is likely to be ferocious, and will revolve around the clashing personalities and starkly differing styles of two Ukrainian political giants who have grappled repeatedly over the past five years and now face their ultimate confrontation.
"There is a fear that this struggle between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich could destabilize Ukraine's political process if it gets out of hand," says Alexander Sushko, an expert with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. "Neither of them has a natural sentiment for democracy, as Yushchenko did, and the biggest threat we face is that the loser may call supporters into the streets," to overturn an adverse popular verdict, he warns.
Both contenders will seek to attract the nearly 35 percent of votes garnered by more that a dozen losing candidates in the first round, many of whom indicated Monday that they are undecided about where to throw their support.
Yushchenko's office noted tersely Monday that the president will not be making any recommendations. "[Yushchenko's] ideas differ sharply from those persons," his spokesman said.
Yanukovich is a dour, Russian-speaking technocrat from Donetsk, a coal-and-steel center in eastern Ukraine, where many people still regret the demise of the USSR and the Orange Revolution found few supporters.
As a young man, Yanukovich served prison time for petty theft, a fact that Tymoshenko is sure to use against him. But he's widely hailed as an able administrator in eastern Ukraine, and his record in two terms as Ukraine's prime minister appears to bear that out.
"I have watched Yanukovich work over many years, as he moved from governor of Donetsk in the early 1990s to prime minister, and I've always been impressed with his organizational abilities," says Vladislav Lukyanov, a parliamentary deputy from Donetsk for Yanukovich's Party of Regions. "I've seen him work effectively with all kinds of people, from wealthy oligarchs to plant managers to ordinary workers. He will bring normal government to Ukraine."
But Yanukovich will need to expand his base beyond his stronghold in the Russian-speaking east -- which gave him most of his votes in the first round -- and he may find it hard to win over people in central and western parts of Ukraine, where many still blame him for allegedly rigging the 2004 presidential elections, which triggered the three weeks of rolling street demonstrations in Kiev that became known as the Orange Revolution and led to the election of Yushchenko five years ago.
Critics say Yanukovich is an old-fashioned Soviet-style politician whose narrow, regional base and Russian-accented speech make him unsuitable to lead Ukraine into the European fold.
"Yanukovich is an archaic, industry-oriented party activist, but he's demonstrated the capacity to learn," says Dmitri Vydrin, an independent deputy of the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. "He's not someone to fear as a possible dictator. But on the other hand, I doubt his ability to improve things. He's not an ideal leader for a big European country."
Tymoshenko earned a fortune dealing in Russian energy in the 1990s, which earned her the sobriquet "gas princess", and spent several months in prison on corruption charges under former President Leonid Kuchma -- an episode she has managed to publicly spin into a case of political persecution by her enemies.
Her great strength, say both critics and supporters, is her attractive public persona -- which she embellishes by wearing Ukrainian peasant braids -- and a mesmerizing speaking style.
"She is an extraordinarily determined person; she can't be kept down," says Vira Nanivska, director of the City Institute in Lviv, an independent political research center. "There is no doubt that she is an outstanding politician, but one has the impression she will do anything it takes to win."
Critics say that Tymoshenko, who's been prime minister over the past year as financial catastrophe melted down Ukraine's economy, will suffer from public perceptions that she spent more effort squabbling with Yushchenko than on trying to stem the crisis.
"Tymoshenko is an effective populist, and a very good speaker, but she failed to deal with the economic crisis when it struck. That fact remains very fresh in the minds of many people," says Mr. Sushko.