DEMIDYV, Ukraine -- Nikolai maneuvered his bike through the ruts in a dirt road and shook his head in disgust. ''Can you call this a civilized country with roads like this?" he said after swerving to avoid a deep mud puddle.
The 53-year-old resident of Demidyv, a Ukrainian village, plans to vote for opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in today's presidential runoff, saying change is what this former Soviet republic needs.
His neighbor Maria Vorchenko, 73, disagreed. She wants stability and a regularly paid pension and thinks Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is the person most likely to provide that.
Ukrainians choose a president today after a tension-filled campaign that has divided this nation of 48 million. Yushchenko and Yanukovych finished in almost a dead heat in the first round, and analysts say there is no clear leader going into the runoff.
Demidyv, a sprawling village of about 3,600 people west of the capital, Kiev, is far off the political map. Neither candidate stopped by, no campaign banners hung over the bare trees. Still, no one passed up the opportunity to discuss the election while lugging groceries home yesterday.
''This is our one opportunity to reclaim our place in Europe," said Vasyl Kobzar, a retired teacher who noted he is casting his ballot for Yushchenko. ''We are tired of standing on the outside looking in. We are tired of standing in Russia's shadow."
Kobzar spoke a few phrases in timid English, saying he preferred that to speaking Russian.
Yushchenko has promised to nudge his nation closer toward Europe, while Yanukovych, who has the Kremlin's support, is seen as more likely to favor Russia.
Vorchenko, who lives with her disabled son, said her monthly pension recently rose to about $55 and Yanukovych has promised still more increases.
''How do I know if he'll do it or not?" she said, standing in her large garden. ''But I know, at least, he won't decrease it."
Lyuba Rebinuk, an accountant, agreed that life has improved in recent years. She has a steady job in Kiev and returns to Demidyv, her native village, on weekends. ''Yushchenko offers more options, a better chance for our country," Rebinuk said.
Yushchenko has pledged 5 million new jobs in this country slightly smaller than Texas. He also promised to eradicate corruption and red tape that has concentrated wealth in the hands of no more than a dozen tycoons.
Yanukovych made similar promises, and tried to appeal to workers and pensioners by increasing wages and pensions by 70 percent, to an average $52.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the broad issue of Ukraine's orientation toward Moscow or the West has been overshadowed by concerns about whether the voting will be free and the ballots counted accurately.
President Bush called on Ukrainian authorities for a vote free of fraud and manipulation. In a letter delivered Friday to President Leonid Kuchma, who is not seeking a new term, Bush said ''a tarnished election, however, will lead us to review our relations with Ukraine."
Ukraine has a brigade of troops in Iraq, has lost nine soldiers killed in the conflict, and is one of the top recipients of US aid. Although millions live in poverty, the country also has shown strong economic growth after years of post-Soviet economic chaos.
The Oct. 31 first round was riddled with protests of voting irregularities and intimidation. The Central Elections Commission took 10 days to announce the results, raising questions about its procedures.
Yesterday, the campaign said two Parliament allies of Yushchenko were beaten in Kiev while investigating possible vote-rigging preparations. Yanukovych's staff said yesterday it had received reports of voter list irregularities, the Unian news agency reported.
Deputy Interior Minister Oleksandr Milenyn said Friday that thousands of police, soldiers, and other security forces will be deployed in Kiev during the voting.