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The Man Of The Moment In Ukraine

  • Gregory Feifer

Ukrainian voters are waiting to see whether Serhiy Tihipko will back one of the runoff candidates.

Ukrainian voters are waiting to see whether Serhiy Tihipko will back one of the runoff candidates.

Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko and her rival, pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych, may have won the top two spots in Ukraine's presidential election on January 17, but as they face off ahead of the final round next month, someone else is at the center of attention.

Third-place finisher Serhiy Tihipko says he won't endorse either candidate, but there's intense competition to get him to change his mind.

Tihipko headed Viktor Yanukovych's campaign during the infamous presidential election in 2004, when their victory -- in voting widely believed to have been rigged -- prompted thousands onto the streets.

The Orange Revolution removed Yanukovych and the rest of the old administration from power. But that hasn't stopped Prime Minister Tymoshenko, the Orange Revolution's heroine, from hoping Tihipko will join her side this time.

The mathematics are simple: Tymoshenko won 25 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on January 17. That's 10 percent behind her rival Yanukovych, a gap she needs to make up to have any chance of winning the presidency in the second round.

Backing from Tihipko -- who came from nowhere to place third with 13 percent -- is Tymoshenko's surest bet to convince undecided Ukrainians to vote for her.

Tihipko is a former central banker and amateur bodybuilder who recently appeared bare-chested on the cover of a glossy magazine. He's insisted he won't back any candidate to win, but there's intense competition to get him to change his mind.

Tymoshenko first began wooing him at her campaign headquarters in Kyiv's Hyatt Hotel on election night. But in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on January 21, Tihipko said he hadn't accepted her offer of the prime minister's seat, along with half the cabinet's other posts. But he said talks were continuing, and left the window open for changing his mind.

"I don't know yet. I'm going to listen and I'm going to think about it," Tihipko said.

Many believe accepting the post would be suicidal. Ukraine is mired in a crippling economic crisis that would ensure that any new prime minister responsible for improving people's lives would quickly become unpopular.

Tihipko is said to be creating a new political party. Like the other 15 losing candidates in the first round, his campaign during the past year is seen as focused not on the presidential vote, but on snap parliamentary elections most believe will be called in May.

Tihipko founded a bank in the early 1990s that he later sold to the Swedbank group for almost $1 billion. Although he was close to Yanukovych, he hasn't been tainted by the corruption allegations that have hurt many other Yanukovych allies. Many of those who voted for Tihipko said they wanted a fresh new leader to replace the same old faces they see as being tied to big business and equally corrupt.

Cliffhanger

So far, no one in Ukraine is predicting who will win the razor's-edge presidential competition most believe will be decided only on election night.

Much of Yanukovych's lead can be explained by a split among Orange supporters who divided their votes between three candidates: Tymoshenko; the fourth-place finisher, former central banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who won almost 7 percent and also says he won't endorse anyone; and President Viktor Yushchenko, who won more than 5 percent.

Some believe Orange voters will inevitably rally behind Tymoshenko. But Ukrainians tend to vote for personalities, not issues, and some analysts say a certain number of those who voted against Tymoshenko in the first round won't be any more likely to back her in the runoff.

Most believe the election will come down to the candidates' campaigning. Inside the Tymoshenko campaign, politicians say they're relishing an out-and-out fight. During the first round, they were badly constrained by a fear of disillusioning potential second-round supporters by attacking Tymoshenko's fellow Orange rivals too strongly.

This time, they say Tymoshenko's task is to paint a stark picture of the difference between her anticorruption, pro-European policies and those Yanukovych, who served two jail terms in his youth for assault and battery, and who they say will turn back the Orange Revolution's democratic gains.

It will be down to voters to decide whether or not they believe her. The election will be Tymoshenko's to win or lose, but Tihipko's endorsement would be a coup that would stack the odds heavily in her favor.

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