- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2010

KIEV — Disillusioned voters gave the archenemy of Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution a first-place finish in the initial round of presidential voting Sunday, setting up a showdown with the heroine of the 2004 revolt, an exit poll showed.

The survey predicted that pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych will finish first in the hard-fought contest. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will finish second, clearing the path for a runoff between the pair next month, the poll showed.

The vote appeared to be a repudiation of the Orange revolt by voters weary of endemic corruption and economic mismanagement.

The two leading candidates stood on opposite sides of the barricades during the peaceful mass demonstrations that kicked out a reputedly corrupt government in 2004. Mr. Yanukovych, then prime minister, was a presidential candidate with the backing of the Kremlin. Ms. Tymoshenko and the Orange forces swarming the streets denounced Russian interference in his initial victory, which eventually was overturned.

Today, both say they will abandon efforts to join NATO and pledge to repair ties to Russia, the region’s dominant power.

President Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution alongside Ms. Tymoshenko and was poisoned by dioxin during the race, garnered 6 percent of the vote in the exit poll, putting him in fifth place after five hapless years in office.

The squabbling federal government has struggled to function at times, and the country has no defense, transport or finance minister.

Ukraine’s currency crashed in 2008, the economy sputtered, and the International Monetary Fund had to step in with a $16.4 billion bailout. Ukraine’s gross domestic product plunged by 15 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank, which estimates that the country will see anemic growth this year.

“Today marks the end of Orange power,” Mr. Yanukovych said in televised remarks. “There will be no room for (Mr. Yushchenko) in the second round. He has officially lost the faith of the people.”

Ms. Tymoshenko, who has fought to retain the loyalty of voters angered by what many see as her movement’s unkept promises, would finish second with 27.2 percent, the exit poll said. The National Exit Poll is by a consortium of groups that conducted up to 13,000 interviews outside 240 polling places. It has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

“This vote makes us certain even today that we will win in the second round,” said Alexander Turchinov, Ms. Tymoshenko’s first deputy prime minister, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. “Moreover, we will win by a wide margin. It will be a decisive victory that cannot be subject to any doubts.”

Reports of voting irregularities poured in from across the country, and the Interior Ministry said it had received some 1,200 complaints detailing falsified voter registrations and illegal absentee voting. Analysts have predicted up to 10 percent of the ballots could be fraudulent.

The Central Election Commission said the irregularities had not been widespread, however, and initial reports from international observers also described a relatively smooth vote.

Mr. Yushchenko was hospitalized with a massive dose of the chemical dioxin during the 2004 race that preceded the Orange Revolution, and his poison-scarred face became a symbol of defiance to tyranny for millions around the world.

But during his five-year term he came to be seen as an ineffective leader when he failed to curb corruption and modernize Ukraine’s economy.

Relations between Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko, allies during the heady days of the Orange revolt, were rocky from the start. They broke down entirely last year, when Ms. Tymoshenko flirted with an alliance with Mr. Yanukovych.

Under Orange leadership, Ukraine’s government did not follow the retreat from democracy that has occurred in Russia and across the former Soviet Union, and today Ukraine has a relatively free press and open political system.

Whoever wins the runoff, Ukraine is likely to shift course away from Mr. Yushchenko’s efforts at rapid Westernization.

Mr. Yanukovych has pledged to end Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO and to elevate Russian to the status of a second official language after Ukrainian. If he wins, relations with Western-allied Georgia are likely to worsen. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has thrown his support behind Ms. Tymoshenko and has sent hundreds of election observers to eastern Ukraine, Mr. Yanukovych’s electoral base.

But Mr. Yanukovych has said he would seek Ukraine’s integration in the European Union. He also has said he would postpone consideration of the future of Moscow’s lease on its naval base in Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The lease expires in 2017.

Ms. Tymoshenko also has said she would end Ukraine’s NATO bid, and in the past year she has worked closely with Moscow to avoid confrontations over Ukraine’s chronically late payments for Russian-supplied natural gas.

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