ROME — Ukrainians will vote for a new parliament Sunday in an election overshadowed by political scandal, foreign intrigue and economic panic, as officials try to convince domestic and international critics that the balloting will be free and fair.
Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko said the election will show that the country is "continuing to advance [its] commitment to democracy after only 20 years of post-Soviet independence." He cited the more than 5,000 international observers on hand and plans to videotape the voting to underscore that the government will respect the election results.
Many observers, however, remain critical of the government, especially after a court last year sentenced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison on corruption charges that many Western observers say were politically motivated.
Mr. Gryshchenko said the criticism is undeserved and that Mrs. Tymoshenko received a fair trial.
"Some Americans and Europeans have tried to prejudge this election or cast doubt on our transparency, or they have tried to judge the election through the prism of last year's conviction of Tymoshenko for abuse of office," Mr. Gryshchenko said.
"But this election is about the aspirations of 36 million Ukrainian voters. It is about the direction and policies that the people of Ukraine wish for their country."
Mrs. Tymoshenko's All Ukrainian Union, the main opposition party, on Thursday accused President Viktor Yanukovych of allowing Russian agents to kidnap a Russian dissident to secure Moscow's backing for his Party of Regions in the elections.
Mr. Yanukovych, who gets much support from pro-Russian Ukrainians, has lobbied Moscow to reduce the cost of imported natural gas, Ukraine's main home heating fuel. Lower prices would help Mr. Yanukovych's party in the elections, his critics have charged.
Mrs. Tymoshenko's party and another opposition party are expected to make gains in the race for the 450-seat parliament, but Mr. Yanukovych's party, which now holds 195 seats, is expected to retain a majority.
Mrs. Tymoshenko's daughter Yevgenia has warned foreign election observers of the consequences of certifying the results of the elections.
"If the democratic world and observer missions do not state at the end of the day that [the elections] are not free and fair, we might see the legitimization of a Ukrainian dictatorship," she said.
Mr. Yanukovych has been embarrassed by news reports that claim he secretly lives a lavish lifestyle on a luxurious estate with a massive mansion, a golf course and even an enclosure with ostriches.
Vitaly Portnikov, a political commentator, has compared Mr. Yanukovych's government to the mafia and cited his estate as an example of corruption among his political cronies.
"Viktor Yanukovych's main goal is not to be president of Ukraine, but to be the No. 1 oligarch in Ukraine," he said.
Meanwhile, many ordinary Ukrainians are more worried about the economy than the election, as they rush to banks to sell their Ukrainian money for dollars or euros, the currency of 17 nations of the European Union. Many fear the currency could face a devaluation after the election.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has lowered its growth forecast for Ukraine's gross domestic product to 1 percent from 2.5 percent, saying that "growth is expected to remain subdued."
Despite the scandals and the economic decline, some leading European figures are hopeful for Ukraine's future and its goal of joining the European Union.
"The Tymoshenko case cannot hinder the future of the country and deeper ties between Europe and Ukraine," said former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
"You cannot stop history, and free and fair elections must presage this change."
Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, a former president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said the election should be judged on its own, not in the context of recent events.
"The Tymoshenko case overshadows everything, but it should not," said Mr. Cavusoglu, who, like Mr. Prodi, spoke in Berlin at a recent symposium on the Ukrainian election.
"The whole country should not be excluded from Europe merely because of Tymoshenko."
Inside Ukraine, many of candidates also say they will take a wait-and-see attitude toward the vote, though with less optimism than the European leaders.
Volodymyr Kukhar, an independent from Ukraine's far western Ternopil region, said he hopes the election will lay the groundwork for a freer democracy.
"I don't think these election will reveal a transparent and democratic system in Ukraine. There are real problems here in the basic institutions of democracy," Mr. Kukhar said in a telephone interview.
"But I hope we are laying seeds for a better system in the future and that we will slowly be able to climb out of our current context.
"Making a change in Ukraine is a slow process, and we must be patient."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.