KIEV, Ukraine -- According to an old folk tradition, if a man knocks on the door of a Ukrainian beauty with a marriage proposal but does not win her heart, she will reject her suitor by presenting him with a pumpkin.
Who will get the pumpkin from Ukraine at the end of this month -- Russia or the European Union?
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More than 20 years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union and painfully searching for its place on the geopolitical map, Ukraine has a critical chance to firmly align itself this month with the EU's democratic standards and free-market zone.
The alternative is to slide back into Russia's shadow, both politically and economically, a result that Russian President Vladimir Putin's government is pushing hard to achieve.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has declared that Ukraine's future lies with the 28-member EU and has pushed through a flurry of pro-EU laws and reforms. But he has resisted fulfilling the most important condition set by the EU in order to sign a political association and free-trade agreement at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov. 28-29: the release from jail of his top political rival, former Premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence on charges the West considers politically motivated.
"We have a chance to be finally together," said former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, an EU envoy who has traveled to Ukraine 27 times over the past 1½ years to urge Yanukovych to release Tymoshenko and sign the EU deal. "Never (was) Ukraine so close to being inside the European Community."
On Monday, EU ministers were stressing that they do need to see movement from Yanukovych, especially on judicial and electoral reform.
"It has got to be reform that is permanent and irreversible and not just reform for Christmas," said Britain's minister for Europe, David Lidington.
Most analysts say the EU deal would benefit Ukraine by giving it access to European markets, bringing its products into line with EU standards, accelerating much-needed reforms and increasing the likelihood of Ukraine getting a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. But, equally important, it would be a precursor to eventual EU membership and thus cement Ukraine's place in the West, with its commitment to democracy and human rights.
"I think it could be a total game changer -- good for the people and good for Ukrainian business. I think if it ends up making the choice to go with Russia, then Ukrainians can forget about European values and perspectives," said Tim Ash, chief emerging-markets economist at Standard Bank in London. The alternative would be "relegating Ukraine's status finally and decisively to that of a second-division Russian proxy."
But the Kremlin has other plans for Ukraine, which shares a similar language and common Orthodox Christian faith with Russia. Having ruled over large parts of Ukraine for centuries, Moscow would hate losing this large piece of its former empire to the West. Putin's government has worked aggressively to derail the EU deal while nudging Ukraine to join a Moscow-led customs union instead.
As Kiev intensified negations with Brussels, Moscow offered Kiev sweet deals such as price discounts on natural gas and loans. But it has also brandished a big stick, banning Ukrainian imports on dubious health grounds and warning of a possible trade blockade.
"Whatever happens, wherever Ukraine is headed, we will still meet each other somewhere, some place," Putin told The Associated Press in an interview in September. "Why? Because we are a common people."
With Putin facing a reinvigorated opposition at home, keeping Ukraine on a leash is also an attempt to legitimize his own power among Russians nostalgic for their country's former might, according to Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. "It distracts from domestic politics, it creates legitimacy by building an international alliance, a new collection of lost land."
Moscow would also feel threatened by a fully democratic Ukraine at its doorstep, as that would pose a threat to the Kremlin's model of "sovereign democracy," with manipulated elections and limited tolerance for dissent.
While a majority of Ukrainians favor an alliance with the EU, pro-Moscow lobbyists are targeting the part of the population that tilts toward the historical ties with Moscow. Ukrainian Choice, a pro-Moscow organization led by a former government official with close ties to Putin, has dotted the country with billboards warning of the perceived horrors that would follow the EU deal: price increases, job losses and, playing on the conservative Orthodox Christian attitudes, gay marriages.
With Yanukovych unwilling to pardon Tymoshenko, the charismatic leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution who nearly defeated him in the 2010 presidential election, Kwasniewski has proposed a compromise. He has urged the Ukrainian parliament to pass a bill next week that would allow Tymoshenko to travel to Germany to get treated for a back problem.
But Yanukovych is up for re-election in 2015 and he is maneuvering hard between Moscow and Brussels, trying to gauge which alliance would give him the best chance to stay in power.
His choice? Political and financial support from Moscow, which has never been fixated on clean elections, or the gratitude of Ukrainians for leading their nation toward the EU, but with the obligation to hold an honest election that comes with it.
Yanukovych took a mysterious trip to Moscow this month to meet with Putin, a meeting only belatedly confirmed by the Kremlin. Ukraine's opposition has accused Yanukovych of selling out to Moscow in behind-the-scenes talks.
Since the trip, Kiev appears to be stalling on Tymoshenko's release: Parliament delayed a vote on that last week and Yanukovych's prime minister described relations with Russia as the nation's top priority.
The EU, however, is not giving up.
In an emotional speech at a conference in Yalta, Kwasniewski recalled the remarks by a senior Russian official that Russia, which shares so much history and culture with Ukraine, was offering Kiev its love, while Kwasniewski said the EU's offer to Kiev was the rule of law.
He noted the painful trade sanctions that Moscow imposed on its neighbor in recent months.
"What kind of love is it?" Kwasniewski asked. "That is full perversion. That is not love."