MOSCOW -- Ukraine and Belarus will choose presidents today in elections that have been dominated by debates about JTC relations with Russia.
The outcomes, which are likely to produce a tighter core of Slavic post-Soviet states, are being closely watched in Washington and Europe, where worries about Russian neo-imperialism are growing.
Ukraine and Belarus, together with Russia, make up the Slavic heartland, and many Russians, at least, have a difficult time drawing these new sovereign borders in their heads.
But it was the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who together broke up the Soviet Union when they met in 1991 and decided on independence.
While Ukraine and Belarus have had brief periods of sovereignty in the past, the question of independence is sharper in Ukraine, where the more nationalist western half of the country was Sovietized only after World War II.
Still, both Ukrainian candidates -- Leonid M. Kravchuk, the nationalist-backed incumbent and former Communist Party ideology secretary, and Leonid D. Kuchma, a former prime minister from eastern Ukraine -- say they will work for closer economic and political ties to Russia.
Mr. Kravchuk has tried to paint Mr. Kuchma as a traitor to Ukraine who might give away sovereignty to Moscow; Mr. Kuchma calls for a realistic recognition of Russia's importance to Kiev.
In Belarus, both candidates are calling for economic union with Russia.
The conservative prime minister, Vyacheslav Kebich, maneuvered to create the post of president so he could fill it. But he was humiliated in the first round by the strong populist showing of Aleksandr Lukashenko, who accused the holdover Kebich government of corruption and won 44.8 percent of the vote to Mr. Kebich's 17.3 percent.
Mr. Lukashenko, 39, calls for fixed prices, no privatization, a ban on private ownership of land and an end to inflation. Mr. Kebich, 59, seems stunned by the popular anger and, like Mr. Kuchma in Ukraine, has found little benefit from Moscow's open political support.
Though Mr. Kebich denies it, he is most likely hoping that fewer than 50 percent of Belarus voters go to the polls, which would render the election invalid and require it to be run again.