Election review could give Ukraine a way out
The fiercely contested presidential election in Ukraine has reignited some of the old cold-war rivalries between east and west.
Russia stands firmly behind the nation's prime minister, while the US and Europe favour the reformist opposition candidate. The outcome is likely to determine whether this former Soviet republic opts for greater integration with the European Union or moves closer to Moscow.
But as many thousands of protesters brave the freezing temperatures to challenge the results of the poll, the prime concern is that this tense standoff is resolved peacefully - preferably in a manner that reflects the will of the people.
With almost all votes counted, the official results suggest that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has won the runoff between the two candidates by less than 3 percentage points.
But these results have been seriously discredited. The election was marred by allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and violence. European and US observers declared the poll to have been unfair and heavily biased in favour of the prime minister. Several Ukrainian cities have refused to accept the results.
Exit polls had pointed to a victory for the west-leaning opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, one of them giving him an 11-point lead.
The country is divided between its mainly Ukrainian-speaking west, which favours Mr Yushchenko, and the Russian-speaking east which supports the prime minister. The big fear is that the security forces will be mobilised to crush mass demonstrations by opposition supporters, fuelling widespread violence.
Another, more attractive, possibility is that the protests will bring about a peaceful revolution. This would mirror events in nearby Georgia a year ago, when the nation's leader stepped down in similar circumstances, paving the way for a fresh election that saw a landslide victory for the opposition candidate.
The prospects of history repeating itself are, however, not good. The prime minister in Ukraine has much tighter control of both the security forces and the media, than was the case in Georgia. And his supporters have pledged that there will be no revolution.
A review of the election and the results - as called for by the EU and US - would be the best way of ending the crisis. But even if such a step is taken, it will be difficult to convince a sceptical public that the outcome is genuine.
Western nations hope to see a reformist, democratic Ukraine acting as a buffer to Russia, where Vladimir Putin continues to strengthen his grip on power. But for many Ukrainians, the key issues are closer to home - jobs, welfare and stability.
Mr Yanukovych may well succeed in riding out the crisis and securing the presidency. If so, we can only hope he will honour his pledge to listen to opposition voices.