A live televised presidential debate might seem like a good sign of a thriving democracy; an alleged attempt by supporters of one candidate to poison the other does not.
Nor do veiled (and open) threats to factory directors and university administrators that they had better deliver the vote from their workers, staff and students, or face government control of all nationwide television and efforts to limit Internet access.
Yet international observers -- including current and former members of the U.S. Congress -- say all those things have been going on in the current presidential campaign in Ukraine, one of the few nations that has joined with the United States in contributing troops to the war in Iraq.
Among the other alleged violations was the discovery on voter registries of names of thousands of long-deceased people -- referred to as "dead souls," in reference to the classic novel by Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol.
"It was the dirtiest [presidential campaign] in Ukraine's history," Taras Kuzio, a visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, told members of Congress at a hearing this week on the elections.
The election drama comes to a head Sunday, when voters decide who should be the next president -- current prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, or Viktor Yushchenko, the former head of the country's central bank and also a former prime minister.
It's an election that most Western observers have described in terms of its geopolitical significance, but Ukrainian critics of the country's current leadership say the issue is more fundamental: whether genuine democracy can survive in the former Soviet republic.
Yanukovych and Yushchenko were the leading vote-getters in the election on Oct. 31, but since neither received more than 50 percent -- Yushchenko got 39.87 percent of the vote, Yanukovych 39.32 percent -- the two entered a runoff, to be held Sunday.
Turnout in the election was nearly 75 percent, which international monitors praised as a positive sign for the development of democracy in Ukraine, but the conduct of the campaign and the polling was harshly criticized.
What stands out among the smear tactics, the control of media and attempts to manipulate voters was the apparent poisoning of Yushchenko on Sept. 6. The candidate was flown to Vienna, Austria, for emergency medical treatment of what his senior aide said was poisoning from "chemical substances which are not normally found in food products.''
''There is enough evidence to say that it was an attempt on the life of presidential candidate Yushchenko,'' Oleksandr Zinchenko said at a news conference last month.
'The Timing Is Suspicious'
Exactly what made Yushchenko sick still has not been determined. A Ukrainian parliamentary investigation concluded this week he had not been poisoned, but a Ukrainian doctor who treated him said only a chemical toxin could have caused the combination of symptoms he saw in the candidate -- eroded stomach and intestine linings, along with paralyzed facial nerves.
"The timing is extremely suspicious," Kuzio told the congressional committee. "And this was, I think, a reflection, a knee-jerk reaction of panic on the part of the authorities that by the third month of the election campaign they had hoped that Yanukovych would be, because of the dirty tactics used, in the lead. In fact, the gap in favor of Yushchenko was growing."
When Yushchenko himself was asked, in an interview earlier this month with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, whether Yanukovych and current President Leonid Kuchma could be behind the poisoning, his response was not direct.
"The authorities know they cannot win the election straightforwardly," he said. "As for the incident you refer to, no comment. I know what kind of country I live in, with what kind of prosecutor general in office. I will acquaint journalists with all the results of the medical tests and examinations. I'm convinced it will shed light on the matter."
American Puppet or Neo-Nazi?
The contest is often painted as one between a pro-Western reformer who would bring Ukraine closer to the United States and Europe (Yushchenko), and a neo-Soviet leader who would pull the country away from the West and closer to Russia (Yanukovych). But nothing is quite that simple.
Yushchenko has been portrayed by his opponents in the campaign as both a U.S. puppet and a kind of neo-Nazi who would repress Ukraine's large ethnic Russian minority. Yushchenko himself has spoken of the need to eliminate corruption, strengthen democratic principles such as freedom of the press and foster better relations with the West, but he also said he would withdraw all Ukrainian troops from Iraq, saying the country has no reason to be there.
Some Ukrainian scholars said the country is in a state similar to that in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
"Those in power are really panicking, but they can't control the society and they really feel that they can lose," Yaroslav Hrytsak, a visiting professor of political science at Columbia University from Lviv University in Ukraine told ABCNews.com. "But I believe they are not as strong as they pretend to be."
"If Viktor Yushchenko is to be elected in the second round, this would in effect be a democratic revolution to complement Ukraine's national revolution that took place in 1991," Kuzio said.
Yanukovych was handpicked by the current president, after Kuchma was unable to get the legislature to approve any of his proposed constitutional changes that would have allowed him to stay in power when his second term runs out.
Yanukovych has presented himself as a leader who would be able to strengthen relations with the United States while maintaining Ukraine's ties with Russia, and a man with the will and ability to control corruption in a country where it is estimated more than 50 percent of the economy is black market.
"If you don't know him, if you don't know his biography, he looks OK, he looks pretty good," Hrytsak said.
He reportedly twice spent time in Soviet prisons for violent crimes, and a former major in the Security Service of Ukraine, Mykola Melnychenko, turned over to the Ukrainian parliament tapes he said implicated Yanukovych in corruption.
The tapes, allegedly made in Kuchma's office, contain voices that sound like Kuchma's and Yanukovych's discussing bribing members of parliament, using violence and other means to suppress freedom of the press, and controlling independent businessmen.
And his claim that he supports good relations with the United States is suspect, Kuzio said, because other candidates the scholar said were directed by Yanukovych ran vicious anti-American campaigns as a way of mobilizing opinion against Yushchenko.
"This anti-Americanism ... reflects the very schizophrenic view of Ukrainian foreign policy," he said. "On the one hand you have Yanukovych lobbying in Washington to the tune of over $1 million since March 2003, sending Ukrainian troops to Iraq, where they are fourth-largest contingent, and at the same time undertaking this highly unusual Brezhnev-era style anti-American campaign, which, of course, is linked to anti-Yushchenko campaign because Yushchenko's wife is an American citizen still."
The anti-American campaigning has been used particularly in the east and south, areas that are predominantly rural and Russian-speaking, and that have solidly supported Yanukovych.
Playing on Fear
Those are also areas, Hrytsak said, where there is little access to Internet, and those no access to information about Yushchenko and his campaign that is not colored by the government. It is there that Yushchenko has been most strongly painted as an ardent Ukrainian nationalist.
That portrait is a misrepresentation of Yushchenko's message, Hrytsak said.
"What he's talking about is the dignity of Ukraine as a nation, not about the religious and linguistic differences," he said.
Yushchenko's support is strongest in the country's cities, and among students, intellectuals and business people, Hrytsak said. But not all the support is because the former bank chief has such a positive image himself.
"The most dynamic elements of the society resent the message sent to them by the government," he said. "They may not like Yushchenko in all occasions, but they are voting against Yanukovych, and that means voting for Yushchenko."