KIEV, Ukraine -- At a convention center in this capital city, the Russian Club, a Kremlin-funded group whose official purpose is to promote Russian-Ukrainian relations, last week hosted a forum for the news media on electoral abuses in Ukraine's presidential campaign.
Several election monitors from a private Russian-backed organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States Election Monitoring Unit, laid out a long list of misdeeds -- nearly all of them allegedly committed by the campaign of leading opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
An elderly woman begs as supporters of Ukraine's prime minister march Friday along the main street in Kiev.
(Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)
Observer Alexey Kochetkov of Russia spoke of "screaming abuses" in the western parts of Ukraine, from which Yushchenko draws much of his support.
Many political analysts depicted Sunday's election as critical to the strategic direction of Ukraine, which lies between Russia and the European Union. But it is also showcasing Russia's emerging ability to use campaign consultants, electioneering and political spin beyond its borders to pursue its long-term objective of retaining influence in former Soviet republics.
"Look at what the U.S. is doing here -- supporting foundations, analytical centers, round tables," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political consultant and head of the Russian Club's Information Center. "It's how contemporary foreign policy is pursued. And it's exactly what we're doing."
In Ukraine, Russia sees clear national interests at stake. It views Yushchenko, a former prime minister, as likely to tilt firmly to the West if he wins, potentially taking Ukraine into the NATO alliance and undermining Russia's security and influence in the region.
"For the Kremlin, this is a very, very important election," said Markov. "We don't want to dominate Ukraine. We want to develop together. But Yushchenko is very dangerous. He is surrounded by these crazy people with a Cold War mentality who hate Russia."
In an interview, Yushchenko dismissed such fears, saying he wanted a close and respectful relationship with Russia.
The Russian Club was opened in August by Viktor Yanukovych, Russia's favored candidate for the presidency, and Dmitry Medvedev, chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At first, officials said the club's opening had nothing to do with the election, but lately it has been involved in little else.
On Friday, the club held a round table with deputies from the lower house of Russia's parliament who had come to observe the election. On Saturday, the club planned to discuss exit polls, including one it had commissioned for Sunday's elections. On election day itself, a team of "experts" is to be available for the press to discuss the day's events.
For years, the U.S. government has helped bankroll grass-roots organizations and other private groups in Ukraine that it said will foster rule of law and democratic rights, and many analysts said the groups tend to gravitate toward the opposition. The State Department recently announced plans to spend $13 million on programs to promote free and fair elections.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the club issued press releases accusing the United States of meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs. "Unfortunately, the Russian Club is forced to state that, in actuality, the discussion is not about providing free and democratic elections, but of actions geared toward deliberately denying free will to the Ukrainian people," said a club statement issued after the State Department's announcement.
The club's leadership also points to visits by U.S. politicians and dignitaries such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger as examples of U.S. efforts to influence the vote.
Critics of Russia's efforts said that unlike the United States or the European Union, Moscow is openly supporting a single candidate.