The presidential election in Kyrgyzstan this weekend will be unusually free and democratic by Central Asian standards, but fears are mounting it could fuel ethnic tensions and regional divide.
Sunday's vote in the economically struggling ex-Soviet nation follows the April 2010 violent ouster of former leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev and ethnic violence in which rampaging mobs killed hundreds of minority ethnic Uzbeks in the country's south.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of around 5 million people on China's western fringes, is home to both U.S. and Russian military air bases, making its fortunes subject of lively international interest.
Over the two decades since the country gained independence, elections have been purely formal exercises designed to lend a threadbare veil of legitimacy to the ruling elite. Bakiyev and his predecessor, mathematician Askar Akayev, only left office after being literally chased out of it by angry mobs.
President Roza Otunbayeva, a seasoned diplomat who served as ambassador in Washington and London and has been running the country as interim leader since 2010, will step down to make way for the election winner.
None of the three top contenders is likely to garner more than 50 percent of votes in the Oct. 30 election, setting stage for a runoff between the two top vote-getters.
The 55-year-old front-runner Almazbek Atambayev, a wealthy businessman who stepped down as prime minister in September to take part in the election campaign, hopes his efforts to restore economic stability over the past year will aid his chances. Raising pitifully low state salaries and pensions has certainly helped cast him as the welfare candidate.
Atambayev made his fortune in the early 1990s after setting up a printing house churning out Russian translations of Mario Puzo's Godfather series, as well as more controversial fare like Anthony Burgesses' Clockwork Orange and the works of Marquis de Sade.
Kyrgyzstan's economic fortunes are inextricably linked with Russia, where around 500,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers reside, and Atambayev has worked hard to deepen those ties. Otunbayeva, the interim leader, also said Friday that Kyrgyzstan has no choice but to join a Russia-dominated economic bloc and eventually enter a more ambitious alliance envisioned by Moscow.
Recognizing the antipathy engendered by the presence of the U.S. air base, Atambayev has pledged it will be closed by 2014, when the current lease runs out.
For all this, however, Atambayev is to many, first and foremost, distinguished for being from the north _ a fact that may prove decisive in an election that threatens to exacerbate regional antagonisms.
"There's a kind of negative connotation to these elections since they are very decisive. There's definitely the question of south and north present here," said Shirin Aitmatova, a parliamentary deputy with the left-leaning Ata-Meken party.
Indeed, the greatest challenge to Atambayev will come from two staunchly southern politicians _ 44-year old ex-Emergency Services minister Kamchibek Tashiyev and former parliament speaker and top security official Adakhan Madumarov, 46.
Tashiyev's nationalist Ata-Zhurt party stunned observers last year by easily winning the largest share of votes in parliamentary elections. That resounding success came on the back of soaring nationalist sentiments that prevailed in the wake of interethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the south that left at least 470 people dead in June 2010 and drove several hundred thousand people from their homes, mostly Uzbeks.
Once in parliament, trained boxer Tashiyev proved a poor team-player and largely gained prominence for his violent physical assaults on fellow party members. Despite his relative lack of campaign financing, he is expected to make a respectable showing.
Ominously, he has warned that an unfavorable result will lead to a robust challenge. In Kyrgyzstan, this often means unruly crowds hitting the streets.
The southern vote will be split between Tashiyev and Madumarov, who has vowed to overturn recent constitutional reforms giving more power to parliament and restore a strong presidency.
Comments made by Madumarov during a televised presidential debate this month, when he spoke about the need to "cut off the tongues and legs" of journalists smearing his reputation, suggest his presidency would mark a rollback to a more authoritarian model of governance.
Even so, Madumarov may hope, despite his strong links to the ousted Bakiyev regime, that he can project a vision of firmness and legality.
"I will never steal from the government's coffers and I will never appoint someone to high office just because we come from the same region, they are my brother, or because they paid me money," he told students at the Kyrgyz Agrarian Institute this week.