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Ukraine's Tihipko Leaves Door Open To PM Post

Serhiy Tihipko
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian businessman Serhiy Tihipko, who came third in a preliminary presidential vote, offered himself as prime minister to any winner ready for unpopular steps to revive the economy, but he refused to back either leading candidate.

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko both seek to woo Tihipko, who presents himself as a hardnosed economist capable of unlocking International Monetary Fund (IMF) cash frozen after Kyiv failed to control its budget.

In an interview with the BBC's Ukrainian Service published today, Tihipko said he heard only populist appeals from the two leading candidates ahead of the final February 7 election.

But after the vote, the former central banker said, he would consider his options.

"I would like to say that I do not rule out the issue of the premiership," Tihipko said.

"If a new president comes and says, 'Sir, the election has passed, much was said, forgive my populism, the country needs change and I am not afraid of taking unpopular steps,' then I will say I would be ready to work as premier," he said.

Yanukovych, disgraced in a rigged poll in 2004 that led to the Orange Revolution, led in the January 17 poll with 35 percent. He draws strong support in the industrial, largely Russian-speaking east and the south.

Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the mass street protests against the fraudulent election, trailed by 10 percent.

Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko was punished by voters who felt he had quickly lost touch with them after the events of 2004 swept him to power. He received just 5.5 percent support.

The result of the election will shape how Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 46 million people lying between the European Union and Russia, handles ties with its powerful neighbors.

It may also revive relations with the IMF, which broke off its $16.4 billion program after Kyiv breached pledges to control the budget.