President Viktor Yushchenko appeared to have to force himself to smile casting his ballot in today's pivotal presidential runoff vote. Wearing a more proletarian-looking coat than his usual long overcoat -- and voting without his children for his first time as president -- he made a quick statement before leaving without answering reporters' questions.
Eliminated from the election after a dismal performance in the first round of voting last month, today he said Ukraine's main task is to show it can conduct a peaceful transfer of power. But he quickly added that Ukrainians would regret either candidate's victory.
"I think Ukrainians will be ashamed of their choice," he said, "but that's also democracy."
It was a hasty, dour affair for the man cheered by hundreds of thousands when he came to power after the Orange Revolution five years ago.
Many Ukrainians are incredulous over Yushchenko's recent actions, including this week's decision to sign a law changing the election rules three days before the vote.
The new law scraps the requirement for a quorum of observers from both sides to approve counts at each polling station. The legislation was initiated and pushed through parliament by the party of pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the former prime minister who lost the presidency in the Orange Revolution.
Yushchenko's deputy administration chief, Marina Stavnichuk, told me today the new law doesn't change the nature of the rules, and that "there will be no problem if neither candidate tries to sabotage the procedure."
"The president signed the law," she said, "in order to stop the runoff from being invalidated by commission members walking out."
But the other candidate in the race, Yushchenko's erstwhile Orange Revolution partner Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, says the new measure will enable her opponent to falsify the results by allowing officials in regions controlled by Yanukovych's Party of Regions to dismiss any observers on election day and replace them with their own appointees.
After signing the new law, Yushchenko fired two regional governors allied with Tymoshenko. The president's critics say his actions drove the final nail into the coffin of his tattered reputation as a reformer. Some believe he's secretly agreed to help his old foe Yanukovych win -- anything to stop Tymoshenko from winning the presidency.
There were numerous accusations of violations in the first round, which international monitors praised as more than 90 percent fair. There are more accusations this time across Ukraine, including sightings of illegal ballots, others gone missing, and the burning of a polling station. Tymoshenko's website is down, the campaign says because of a hacker attack.
Both sides are preparing for action after the election. Many believe the losing side will contest the result in court.
Tymoshenko has vowed to bring on a second Orange Revolution if Yanukovych rigs the polls, while officials said the Party of Regions has submitted a permit application for a 50,000-strong rally on February 8 outside the Central Election Commission.
But many disillusioned Ukrainians don't believe significant numbers would turn out. Most say the bulk of any protest movement would consist of rent-a-crowds, people paid to stand outside and wave the flags of one or another of the candidates.
One woman told me after casting her ballot for Tymoshenko that she expects a long political standoff. "You know," she said, "the one thing we're good at here."
-- Gregory Feifer, Kyiv