Will Ukraine Choose a Sympathetic Russia over a Democratic Europe?

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Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, left, meets with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, on Oct. 18, 2011, in Donetsk, Ukraine

After a week of bruising criticism from the West over the jailing of his main political opponent, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday heard the words that put all strongman leaders at ease.

"It's Ukraine's internal affair," Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said of the seven-year jail term handed down last week to Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The Kremlin chief then suggested he could offer Ukraine a discount on gas prices and called for Kiev to turn its back on its long-held desire for European integration by instead joining a Moscow-led trade bloc.

Medvedev's message was clear: if you join us, we will give you cheap gas and won't hassle you over trifles such as the rule of law like the West does.

That same day, the European Union cancelled Yanukovych's visit to Brussels, which had been scheduled for Thursday, casting doubt on a planned deal on free trade and political cooperation. As Europe cools relations with Kiev amid Yanukovych's refusal to release Tymoshenko and broader concerns about backsliding on democracy, Russia appears increasingly confident it can pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence.

The former Soviet republic now finds itself at a fork in the road, forced to pick which way to lean to in its relations and style of governance. "One side is pulling us toward imperial, Asiatic politics, the other toward democratic values," former President Viktor Yushchenko told TIME on Wednesday.

Yushchenko irked Russia with his pro-Western foreign policy after being catapulted to power by the Orange Revolution in 2004. That uprising, which overturned the fraud-tainted election of Yanukovych, helped make Ukraine an outpost of democracy in a region of harsh regimes. But Yushchenko and his Prime Minister Tymoshenko feuded throughout their time in office, and Yanukovych bounced back in the 2010 election.

He quickly repaired relations with Russia but insisted that European integration remained the priority. At the same time, he has pursued what critics call authoritarian policies: a change to the constitution handed him greater powers, journalists complain of pressure to promote the authorities' agenda, and around a dozen members of the previous government are under investigations or on trial in criminal cases.

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