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Surprise Showing For Tymoshenko In Ukraine

  • Gregory Feifer

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at a press conference, January 17, 2009

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at a press conference, January 17, 2009

KYIV -- It appears orange is still in style in Ukraine.

When the results of the country's most respected exit polls were announced on television after voting ended in the January 17 presidential election, pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych came in first with more than 31 percent of the vote.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko followed with more than 27 percent. But the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution placed far better than expected, putting her in good position to gain enough support to win the presidency in a second-round vote next month.

Supporters applauded as Tymoshenko entered a packed press room in her campaign headquarters inside central Kyiv's Hyatt Hotel. Wearing a chic white dress and with her hair impeccably styled in her trademark blond braid crown, Tymoshenko appeared radiant.

Echoes of Orange

She spoke confidently at the podium, demonstrating the kind of decisiveness Ukrainians say they desperately want after five years of political crisis and endless infighting among the Orange Revolution's estranged leaders.

Lashing out at her main rival, Tymoshenko said the exit poll results showed a majority of people want Ukraine to be a free, democratic country. "The chances for Yanukovych -- who represents criminal circles -- [of becoming president] simply don't exist," she said.

Other exit polls gave Yanukovych a bigger lead, around 10 percentage points, which is much closer to predictions ahead of the vote.

But Tymoshenko criticized them for having been commissioned by television stations connected to corrupt business oligarchs, saying they had spread lies during the campaign aimed at obstructing the democratic process.

Tymoshenko said that as president, she would never allow Ukraine to turn from the path it chose during the Orange Revolution. "It's the path of struggle for the revival of justice, the struggle for our European choice, toward the renewal of democracy," she said.

If the final official results expected over the next several days show that no candidate won a majority, the first- and second-place finishers will face each other in the runoff election on February 7.

Tymoshenko appealed to Ukrainians who had voted for other candidates, saying she would carry out what had eluded the country's Orange leaders since they came to power.

"The democratic forces will be united," she said. "We will do everything so that in the future they will act in a single and powerful force to move the country toward European civilization."

Tired Of Infighting

Many Ukrainians say they're disillusioned by politics that have been hamstrung by the bickering between Tymoshenko and her former ally, President Viktor Yushchenko. The infighting deepened even as corruption ballooned and the economy was devastated by the effects of the global financial crisis. Exit polls gave Yushchenko around 6 percent of the vote, ruling him out of the race.

But Yanukovych, the villain of the Orange Revolution -- which drove him from power after street demonstrations against his victory in a tainted presidential election five years ago -- put on a brave face.

Speaking in a massive, wood-paneled room at his own hotel headquarters next door to Tymoshenko's, the onetime electrician said the results showed he would win the presidency. "Our citizens voted for change. They made it clear their views require transformation for the better -- that's the main result," he said.

Yanukovych Defiant

But the mood at the banquet tables under a giant video screen of Yanukovych was decidedly dejected. The barrel-chested opposition leader said he would wait for the official results to come in, saying he was prepared for possible falsifications by his rivals in power.

Yanukovych's main support is in the industrial, largely Russian-speaking east of the country. He returned to an issue that helped make him popular there when he first rose to prominence, vowing as president he would make sure Ukraine would never join NATO.

"The Ukrainian state will remain outside any bloc. Ukraine will never join any military alliance," he said. "That's the view of the Ukrainian people, it must be respected and taken into account."

The exit polls put Ukraine's newest up-and-comer Serhiy Tihipko -- a wealthy banker and former economy minister who once served as Yanukovych's campaign manager -- third with more than 13 percent of the vote.

Trailing Tihipko was 35-year-old Arseniy Yatsenyuk, President Yushchenko's former foreign minister, with almost 8 percent.

Analyst Taras Kuzio says the exit poll results were "fantastic" for Tymoshenko. He says that if she's able to win over the Orange voters who cast their ballots for Tihipko, Yatsenyuk, and other candidates -- something many predict -- she can easily win the second round.

"It's not going to be a massive result, it's not going to be a massive landslide, in Ukraine politics never are," he says. "But certainly I think she has a chance of winning."

Negotiations Under Way

Backroom negotiations to win backing from the losing candidates had already begun on January 17. Analysts say that unlike Tymoshenko, Yanukovych has less room to maneuver, saying he can't be certain any besides the small number of communist and socialist voters will join his supporters.

Besides the intense horse trading, most expect the coming weeks ahead of the second round to be fraught with fraud allegations and court cases. But in cold and snowy Kyiv on January 17, Tymoshenko's supporters were giddy with the prospect that she appears set to be crowned Ukraine's new leader.

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