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Putin woos Ukraine with a Russian common market

The choice in Sunday's presidential election: move closer to Europe or Russia?

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The fate of a key Kremlin plan to build a post-Soviet common market may hang in the balance this weekend as the voters of Ukraine choose a new president in a cliffhanger election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has risked international condemnation by making two high-profile forays into Ukraine in the past month to all but openly campaign for pro-Moscow prime minister Viktor Yanukovich. Mr. Putin hints at dire economic consequences if the pro-European Union and NATO-leaning liberal Viktor Yushchenko should be elected.

On the other hand, many critics fear a victory for Mr. Yanukovich would end Ukraine's fragile post-Soviet independence and chain it to an increasingly authoritarian and imperial Russia.

The stakes are high for Putin, who has described the four-nation Common Economic Space (CES) free-trade agreement, slated to be signed next spring, as vital to his plans for modernizing Russia's economy and doubling its gross domestic product within a decade. Some Russian experts suggest the new union, to be headquartered in Kiev, might even evolve into a Eurasia alternative to the EU.

Though the post-Soviet states of Belarus and Kazakhstan are firmly on board, the scheme probably cannot be realized without Ukraine, after Russia the most important component of the former USSR's industrial complex and its agricultural breadbasket. "We would like to restore what was lost with the Soviet Union's disintegration," Putin told a meeting of post-Soviet leaders last June. "We must steer toward integration ... concerted action is the only way to survive in conditions of [global] competition."

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