It was the handshake that sealed the end of a revolution.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic Ukrainian Prime Minister and a key figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution that set the country on a pro-European, anti-Russian course, sat down late last year with Vladimir Putin, who offered her a generous deal for sending Russia's natural gas through Ukraine's pipelines, paying 30 per cent more than previously.
She appeared on television warmly shaking hands with the Russian Prime Minister, in what is widely seen as Moscow's endorsement - some would say purchase - of her candidacy.
The image of the handshake is everywhere this week, as Ukrainians prepare to go to the polls Sunday in an election that seems poised to bring the Orange Revolution to a close.
It marks, for Ukraine, the return of Russia.
Viktor Yushchenko, the current President and hero of the 2004 democracy movement, is polling at about 3 per cent, abandoned by almost all voters. Under his watch, the country stagnated, its economy collapsed by 15 per cent, its balance sheet had to be bailed out with a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, and corruption flourished.
Voters seem poised to give the greatest share of first-round votes either to Viktor Yanukovich, the Moscow-backed leader who was driven from office in the 2004 protests against his fraudulent election, or to Ms. Tymoshenko. Both have pledged to build relations with Moscow and to abandon plans to bring Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"We are witnessing a mass disappointment and irritation with the results of the Orange Revolution," says Fesenko Volodymyr, director of Kiev's Center for Political Studies. "Voters are more willing to ask questions now. They are more pragmatic, because they have been humbled, and it is no longer a simple decision between the East and the West."
The courtship of Moscow's largesse is no longer, for many mainstream Ukrainians, a sign of capitulation to a menacing former imperial master, a country that owned and controlled Ukraine for a century.
Almost immediately after the Orange Revolution protests brought Mr. Yushchenko to office in early 2005 amid promises to reform the economy and join NATO and the European Union, Moscow began to punish Ukraine.
Europe was terrified by Ukraine-Russia "gas wars" in 2006 and early 2009. Ukraine's pipelines carry much of Europe's natural gas supply from Russia, and in both those years, Russia refused to pay Ukraine the price it wanted for carriage. In the winter of 2006, a chunk of Europe went without heat for days.
Mr. Putin's deal with Ms. Tymoshenko was an apparent signal that the gas wars would end under her leadership.
Mr. Yushchenko, sidelined by the deal, issued dark warnings that his two opponents are part of a Kremlin plot. "Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are the finest representatives of a single Kremlin coalition," he told voters in Lviv, in Ukraine's European-minded west.
Ms. Tymoshenko explained her apparent abandonment of Orange Revolution polarities as a matter of pragmatism. "We are destined to have Russia as a neighbour," she wrote in a magazine article. "So it is up to us, as well as Russia's leaders, to create mutually beneficial relations between our nations."
Voters certainly seemed to embrace this, giving her a sharp increase in support after the deal. But her handling of the economy as Prime Minister, during which the international credit crisis devastated Ukraine and effectively bankrupted the government, have punished her, giving Mr. Yanukovich a slightly stronger lead.
It might seem that Ukrainians are shifting their loyalties back eastward after a disillusioning five-year experiment in Europeanism. Attempts at NATO membership brought only fury from Russia. Investment, when it did materialize, was short lived.
The European Union has essentially abandoned Ukraine, building tough border defences on its Polish flank and failing to allow Ukraine onto the bottom rungs of the membership process - even though this accession process has brought political and economic stability to Croatia and Serbia under similar circumstances.
As much as this appears to be a shift of loyalties, the reality is far more complex: Ukraine can no longer be described as a bifurcated country, and politics is no longer a stark east-or-west decision.
While eastern Ukrainians, who speak Russian, still tend to sympathize with Moscow and western Ukrainians are far more European-minded, central Ukrainians, who make up the largest population bloc, are increasingly willing to accept a closer relationship with Moscow, in part because the experience of Western co-operation has offered them so little.
But they aren't willing to give up the nationalist reforms of 2004, which outlawed the Russian language from schools and television. And none of the candidates, even Mr. Yanukovich, has dared touch these changes in campaigns.
Nor do they seem likely to interfere with the impressive media freedoms and protest movement rights that have developed during the past five years, making Ukraine one of the most free and open places among former Soviet states.
And Ms. Tymoshenko, while moving closer to Moscow, has vowed to push harder for an EU position and to fight for improved trade relations with the West. Western diplomats believe that she is sincere in this, and that, paradoxically, the pro-Moscow candidates may be the ones with the political leverage and negotiating skills to give Ukraine an opening to Europe.
"For the past five years, we have seen Ukraine butting its head up against a wall," one seasoned European diplomat said. "If the more Russian-minded candidates win, they seem able to execute something more like a judo move that will use Moscow to push Ukraine to the West."Report Typo/Error
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