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KIEV — Ukraine’s politics are not those of the steppe. Our voters cannot stroll in one direction during one poll, and in the opposite direction the next time they vote, without worrying about falling over the edge. Ukrainians are people of the watershed: We live on either one side or the other of a great divide.

A year ago, Ukrainians dared to risk the unfamiliar territory over the hill, and found democracy and the promise of a more open and honest economy. But democracy is messy; with some of our Orange Revolution’s promises postponed or disavowed by President Viktor Yushchenko, there is a chance that on Sunday, when Ukrainians vote for a new Parliament, they may in their disappointment choose to return to the realm of corrupt and autocratic rule.

The alternatives — for my country, for Russia, and for Europe — are clear. Of the three leading electoral coalitions that are challenging each other, the forces that supported the Orange Revolution seek a modern and democratic future for our country. The other bloc offers the near-certainty of a return to a surly and squalid isolation — perhaps the beginning of the end of our hard-won independence.

Of course, our Orange forces are not perfect, and Viktor Yanukovich — who again opposes Ukraine’s democrats — is not Stalin reincarnated. But the records of both alternatives suggest that Ukraine under those who backed the Orange Revolution will remain a member of the club of democracies and open economies, whereas under Yanukovich, Ukraine would turn its back on reform, and may re-embrace the grimmest aspects of our Soviet past.

Yanukovich’s “Party of the Regions” has been leading in opinion polls for months, and the world should remember that Yushchenko’s ultimate triumph over him in 2004 was by a whisker, not a landslide. Moreover, Yushchenko used his year in power mostly to disappoint those whose votes he now needs.

The case against a Yanukovich counter-revolution is that it would be just that: a ruthless effort to undo Ukraine’s democratic and legal reforms. Moreover, he would not be left to himself to govern, but would be a marionette of the oligarchs who bankroll his party, and perhaps of Russia, which yearns — albeit more discretely than a year ago — for his triumph.

Yanukovich’s party contains the largest core of unreconstructed apparatchiks of any party. Many of its candidates seek office not to work for Ukraine’s betterment, but to gain parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Some say we should not worry, that democracy and the market are now too well established in Ukraine to be replaced; that reform is irreversible; and that the country’s ruling oligarchic clans, like those of Eastern Europe, will in time become law-abiding capitalists. Alas, this view is based more on wishful-thinking than on reality.

A year after the Orange Revolution demonstrated ordinary Ukrainians’ fidelity to liberty, Yanukovich still evinces no faith in democracy, and the “single economic space” with Russia that he backs will strengthen the abusive oligarchic system and rule out liberalization. Yanukovich’s foreign policy might not be openly subservient to Russia, but it won’t also be a clearly pro-Western one either. A Yanukovich government promises the semi-neutrality of semi-paralysis.

Many who support Yanukovich do not necessarily wish to go back to the old days but are confused by the buffeting they have received in the past decade. Yanukovich panders to xenophobes and anti-Semites, and his strongest appeal is to the core of angry die-hards who detest the collapse of Soviet power. He remains unrepentant about the obscene levels of corruption during his tenure as prime minister.

I do not claim that the Orange Revolution’s protagonists are paragons, and that the split between Yushchenko and me has not disheartened many of those who stood with us in the streets of Kiev in the winter of 2004-2005. But no one can question that we brought more honest government, and the beginnings of a more open economy, to Ukraine. We began the battle against entrenched corruption, imposed the rule of law on Ukraine’s robber barons, and encouraged the birth of a vital civil society.

Most Ukrainians feel more secure because of these changes. This is why our people should know precisely what they are voting for this Sunday. I have pledged that, under no circumstances will I form a coalition government with Viktor Yanukovich. President Yushchenko should do the same. Only by restoring our partnership can we hope to keep our Orange Revolution’s promises.

Criminal and civil codes will be enforced; our courts will be allowed to find their feet and their freedom. Above all, the new Rada (parliament) will settle down to the business of enacting laws and monitoring the government, not carving up the budget among corrupt clans. We will fight for essential reforms to bring the country in line with European norms. Relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government will be repaired.

Elections are seldom make-or-break affairs. This one is. For the battle for Ukraine’s liberty and independence was not decided last winter. A Yanukovich restoration would be a disaster for Ukraine, for Russia, and for Europe, because it would put Ukraine’s independence in question and tempt Russia with dreams of renewed empire. Only a second victory over Yanukovich can secure a future of freedom and hope for Ukraine’s people.

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