An epic battle is shaping up in Ukraine as two bitter rivals, Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych, prepare to slug it out for a dubious prize: leading a nation 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, lofted to power five years ago on the wings of the pro-democracy "Orange Revolution," went down in flames in the presidential election's first round Jan. 17, winning a humiliating 5.5 percent of the votes.
The second round, pitting Mr. Yanukovych, who won 35.3 percent support in the first round, against Ms. Tymoshenko, with 25 percent, is slated for Feb. 7.
With Mr. Yushchenko sidelined, much of the East-West geopolitical tension that has marred domestic politics may dissipate, leaving the contenders to address the economic crisis, endemic corruption, and the status of the Russian language, spoken by about a third of Ukrainians.
Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have signaled they would go slow on anti-Moscow policies Yushchenko championed, including NATO membership, integration with the European Union, and plans to evict Russia's Navy from its historic Black Sea post in Crimea.
But experts say the contest is likely to be ferocious, revolving around clashing personalities and the differing styles of two political giants who have tussled in parliament.
On Thursday, Yushchenko signed a law repealing a requirement that representatives of both candidates be present to supervise vote-counting at polling stations. Tymoshenko warned that this could lead to ballot-box stuffing and fraudulent vote-counting. She has urged her supporters to come out in large numbers if she does not prevail in Sunday's election, and has said that protests could outsize those of the Orange Revolution.
"There is a fear that this struggle between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych could destabilize Ukraine's political process if it gets out of hand," says Alexander Sushko, with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev (Kyiv). "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 than a dozen losing candidates in the first round.
As a young man, he served prison time for petty theft, a fact Tymoshenko is sure to deploy. But he's hailed as an able administrator in eastern Ukraine, and his two terms as prime minister appear to bear that out. "I've seen him work effectively with all kinds of people, from wealthy oligarchs to plant managers to ordinary workers," says Vladislav Lukyanov, a parliamentary deputy from Donetsk for Yanukovych's Party of Regions. "He will bring normal government to Ukraine."
But Yanukovych may find it hard to win over central and western Ukraine, where many still blame him for allegedly rigging the 2004 presidential elections, triggering the three weeks of rolling street demonstrations in Kiev that became known as the Orange Revolution.
Critics say Yanukovych is ill-suited to lead Ukraine into the European fold. "He's not someone to fear as a possible dictator," says Dmitry Vydrin, an independent deputy of the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. "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, and spent months in prison on corruption charges under former President Leonid Kuchma.
Critics say she may suffer from perceptions that she spent more time sparring with Yushchenko than trying to stem the economic crisis.
Her great strength, say both critics and supporters, is her attractive public persona 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."
Material from wires was used in this report.