Ukraine election puts democracy under scrutiny
As Ukraine holds a parliamentary election on Sunday, the country's future direction will once again be in question.
Western officials are calling the vote pivotal, billing it as a "litmus test of Ukraine's democratic credentials".
President Viktor Yanukovych has dismayed those Western officials, not least by jailing his main rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Mrs Tymoshenko, a hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, was charged with overstepping her powers as prime minister four years ago when she signed a gas deal with Russia, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Critics claim she was prosecuted and imprisoned in order to prevent her running in this election.
Western governments were outraged, and the EU has indefinitely postponed its association agreement, including a free trade pact.
Mr Yanukovych insists European integration is one of his government's main goals. But he has rejected any calls to free Mrs Tymoshenko, maintaining that she was sentenced by an independent court.
Ukrainian authorities hope a good assessment by 3,500 international election observers will reopen the door to the association agreement.
All of which sets the stage for Sunday's vote. If the process is determined to be free and fair, then Ukraine feels its case is strengthened that it remains committed to democratic values, albeit with a few hiccups.
"If these elections run well, then I really cannot find any logical argument to claim there is no democracy in Ukraine," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn.
"Because what is democracy, if not an opportunity for people to come one day to the polling stations and vote for the political parties they support?"
Rise of the right
The new parliament's composition is an open question. Five parties at the moment appear as if they will get over the 5% threshold of votes needed to enter parliament.
They include Mr Yanukovych's Party of Regions and Mrs Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party.
But many voters are disillusioned with all of the mainstream parties. They say they are suffering economically, and that corruption and cronyism have grown worse under Mr Yanukovych.
That has fuelled interest in other parties. Two of the biggest surprises in the election campaign have been the Udar party of boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, and the far-right Svoboda party.
"I'm going to vote against everyone. It's time to throw everyone out and bring in a new generation," said Svitlana, a spectator at a recent rally for Vitali Klitschko.
Mr Klitschko, who enjoys the nickname Dr Ironfist, has seen his popularity explode because of his opposition to Mr Yanukovych and because, as a newcomer, he is so far untainted by Ukraine's corrosive politics.
As for Svoboda, many people say they like the party's strong anti-government stance and its passionate defence of Ukraine's culture and language.
But the party is also known for racist and anti-Semitic statements. Its leader Oleh Tyahnybok has said Jews and Russians are occupiers in Ukraine.
EU officials are hopeful that the election will be free and fair, but they have already voiced concerns over the campaigning.
In a New York Times editorial this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton cited "worrying trends" in the interim election report from the international security body OSCE.
These included government resources being used to favour ruling party candidates, media restrictions, vote-buying and lack of transparency on the electoral commissions.
The association agreement would go forward, the two foreign policy chiefs wrote, "if the democratic rights of the Ukrainian people, including freedoms of expression, political participation, association and media, are respected, the rule of law is put on strong footing, and progress is made on the overall reform agenda".
Likewise, EU officials are steadfast that the Tymoshenko case will remain central after the votes are counted, because the treatment of "one single person" is in fact a comment on the system as a whole.
"Ukraine is losing because of the case of Yulia Tymoshenko," said Jan Tombinski, the EU ambassador in Kiev.
"It is not only that Yulia Tymoshenko is in prison. But Ukraine is in prison because of Yulia Tymoshenko in relations with European Union."