UKRAINE - Ukraine's voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president after Mr Viktor Yanukovych's ouster in February triggered a Russian military intervention and the worst East-West showdown since the end of the Cold War.
With fabulous personal wealth and nicknames such as the "chocolate king" and the "gas princess", the leading presidential candidates read like the cast of a Hollywood B-movie. But the ballots will decide the fate of the country, which is facing a civil war and financial bankruptcy.
Despite the dangerous security situation, the electoral campaign has been lively and peaceful. Twenty candidates are vying for the top post, including a far-right leader advocating the death penalty for Russian separatists and a skincare specialist who likes to play folk songs to the public.
But only three candidates are serious contenders: Mr Petro Poroshenko, a tycoon nicknamed the "chocolate king", who is now viewed as the unstoppable front runner; former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Ukraine's most famous but also its most polarising figure who is trailing second in the polls; and Mr Serhiy Tyhypko, an amiable banking billionaire running a distant third.
Their most immediate challenge is to ensure that Sunday's vote takes place peacefully, and that its results are accepted by ethnic Russian separatists within the country and by neighbouring Russia, which champions their cause.
The omens are not encouraging: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continues to dismiss the election as "very destructive" and has argued that it should not take place before the Ukrainian authorities find "some common ground" with separatists in the east of the country.
According to the Central Electoral Commission, a 70,000-strong police force will be on patrol on Sunday and armoured vehicles will be used to transport ballot papers. The presence of about 1,200 international observers should also help maintain order.