KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainians cast their first presidential ballots since the 2004 Orange Revolution Sunday, an election that could steer the country from its pro-Western course and strengthen ties with Russia.
Voters trudged toward the polls in light snow in the capital Kiev early in the morning. At one polling station in the eastern city of Donetsk, officials encouraged voters with vodka, sausage and salo, or lard, a traditional Ukrainian hors d'oeuvre.
Opinion polls show former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian figure who was the target of the 2004 Orange-led mass protests, has the support of about a third of voters. He is followed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an Orange leader who in the past year has reached out to the Kremlin.
President Viktor Yushchenko, propelled to power by the 2004 protests, appears to be out of the running. He has sought to build bridges with the West and to reduce Russia's influence in Ukraine, antagonizing Moscow. Many voters hold him responsible for the country's political gridlock and economic troubles.
If, as expected, none of the 18 candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, the race will be forced into a second-round runoff between the first- and second-place finishers.
Yanukovych has pledged to end Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and to elevate Russian to the status of a second official language after Ukrainian. If he wins, relations with Western-allied Georgia are likely to worsen. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has thrown his support behind Tymoshenko and has sent hundreds of election observers to eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych's electoral base.
But Yanukovych has said he would seek Ukraine's integration in the European Union. And he has said he would postpone consideration of the future of Moscow's lease on its naval base in Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The lease expires in 2017.
Tymoshenko also has said she would end Ukraine's NATO bid, and in the past year has worked closely with Moscow to avoid confrontations over Ukraine's chronically late payments for Russian-supplied natural gas. Her effort to court the Kremlin represents a significant shift for Tymoshenko, who in 2007 described Russia as an neo-imperialist power determined to dominate its neighbors.
Many Ukrainian voters appeared to have low expectations of Sunday's vote, with some wondering whether the election can help the country recover.
"I think things will get even worse," said Tamara Alexandrova, a retired resident of Kiev. "I live near the presidential offices, and you see what happens there. Nobody cares about the people."
But Viktor Vityuk, a 30-something Kiev voter, expressed confidence that the election would help the country advance. "I think that the choice our nation makes will be the right one," he said.
Voters, analysts and candidates have all expressed fear that Sunday's vote will be marred by large-scale fraud. Allegations of ballot rigging in the 2004 election led to the Orange protests.
As part of an international effort to bolster confidence in the returns, foreign observers have fanned out across Ukraine to monitor voting in this country of 46 million.
Disenchantment among the country's 36.6 million voters could bolster the fortunes of lesser-known candidates. Sergey Tigipko, a former economics minister and wealthy banker, has surged in the polls in recent weeks. In a media blitz, he has presented himself as a fresh face and a political outsider.
One recent poll suggested Tigipko had overtaken Tymoshenko for second place and could win a spot in the runoff. As he voted in Kiev Sunday, Tigipko told Associated Press Television News that the country needed to change course.
"Unfortunately, currently we see a lot of populism, lot of show and less concrete talk and it makes the country vulnerable," he said.
Another candidate appealing to disillusioned voters is Vasily Gumenyuk, 63, a former mayor from western Ukraine, who legally changed his name to Vasily Protivsikh, which translates as Vasily Againstall. He appears on the ballot under that name.
The Ukrainian presidential ballot already allows voters to decline to support any candidate and choose "Against All." On this ballot, the words will appear twice.