Ukraine's Orange counter revolt

VIKTOR Yanukovich was swept aside five years ago in the Orange Revolution, derided as a barrel-chested party boss and Kremlin stooge whose career was over as Ukraine embraced the West.

Today Yanukovich is close to exacting his revenge as the country goes to the polls in a vital presidential election, – a revolt against the revolution.

"Together, we have suffered through this Orange nightmare," Yanukovich told his supporters at a recent rally. "Let us consign this history to the black pages of our lives."

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Yanukovich, a former prime minister, has capitalised on the Ukrainians' deep disillusionment with a limp economy and the Orange leaders, who promised to modernise the country and move it away from Moscow. Instead, they have been consumed with infighting that has paralysed government.

"Do we want to keep living as we have lived these five years?" Yanukovich asked. "When you know the answer to that, then you will know how to vote."

The Orange Revolution shook the former Soviet Union, ushering in a pro-Western government in Ukraine that seemingly stood as a model for the many post-Soviet states seeking to emerge from authoritarianism.

The movement broke out after protesters asserted that Yanukovich had triumphed in the 2004 presidential election over Viktor Yushchenko only because of widespread fraud.

A new election was held, which Yushchenko won. He had already garnered worldwide attention when he was poisoned and disfigured by dioxin during the campaign.

Opinion polls in Ukraine have been outlawed law since 2 January but the most recent data shows Yanukovich leading by between 10-15 percentage points. The race remains volatile.

He is likely to be forced into a runoff next month against the other front-runner, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with whom he traded insults in the final run-up to today's vote.

The prime minister ridiculed Yanukovich's poor education, saying he was not fit to lead a country that teetered on "a razor-sharp edge of choice".

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"I really cannot understand how a European country with such an intellectual level... could elect for itself a person who does not know the difference between Austria and Australia," she said on a TV talk show.

Yanukovich defended his refusal to meet Tymoshenko in a TV debate and accused her of lying.

"I have been debating with Tymoshenko for five years. In those five years she has not once told the truth," he said.

If Yanukovich does become president, it will be a victory for the Kremlin, which has worked assiduously in recent years to discredit the Orange movement to prevent a pro-Western realignment.

But it might not result in the total victory the Kremlin hopes for. Since his defeat five years ago, Yanukovich has sought to avoid being pigeonholed as the Kremlin's candidate. Sounding somewhat like an Orange politician, he said he supported Ukraine's integration with Europe, as well as a robust, multiparty democracy at home.

But Yanukovich has said he would repair relations with Russia, which has been especially angered by President Yushchenko's attempt to seek Nato membership. Speaking of Russia, he said: "Relations should be natural, as they are between the Ukrainian people and the Russian people. They must be friendly, they must be pragmatic, they must be strategic."

The Kremlin, in fact, is trying to maintain ties with both front-runners, indicating that tensions may be soothed however the election turns out. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia has had warm words recently for Tymoshenko, and she has reciprocated.

Left behind has been President Yushchenko, an Orange leader and Kremlin foe who, rightly or wrongly, has been widely blamed for the economic troubles.

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He is seeking re-election, but his favourability ratings are in the single digits.

Lately, he seems mostly intent on destroying the candidacy of Tymoshenko, his former ally, as if he would rather Yanukovich won than she.

Tymoshenko has been running a populist campaign, trying to paint Yanukovich as a front man for the country's business elite.

"The oligarchs want a weak puppet leader who can be easily managed and ruled," she said. But political experts here said she faced a challenge overcoming the backlash against the Orange Revolution.

"There is this element of positive experience and timing," said Andrei Yermolayev, director of the Sofia Centre for Social Research in the capital, Kiev. "There is a certain stereotype that the years when Yanukovich was prime minister were years of success, and the years when Tymoshenko was prime minister were years of conflict and problems."

That is reflected in the fact that Tymoshenko's native region in Dneprodzerzhinsk is now a Yanukovich stronghold.

And there were people in the crowds who were once Orange backers.

"I voted for Yushchenko," said Marina Sazonova, 44, a lawyer. "I was sitting home, breastfeeding my baby, watching with tears in my eyes our people getting up off their knees. There was this impression that everybody was united.

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"People hoped that it would make their lives better," she continued. "But nothing of the kind happened."