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Yanukovych appears to make big gains in Ukraine election

MOSCOW—The villain of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution is likely to emerge with the biggest gains in Sunday's parliamentary election, as voters soured on Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko because of unfulfilled promises.

But the political party led by Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, who almost came to power in a rigged presidential election 16 months ago, is not expected to win a majority.

An early exit poll released Sunday after polls closed Yanukovych's Party of Regions in the lead with 33.3 percent.

The bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's former ally and prime minister until he fired her in September, appears headed for a strong second-place finish. The exit poll gave her 22.7 percent of the vote.

Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party finished a distant third, with 13.53 percent, in the same survey conducted jointly by three independent organizations in Ukraine.

If the official results reflect the poll findings, Tymoshenko will gain the upper hand in negotiations aimed at reconciling with Yushchenko to form a parliamentary majority that can name a new prime minister.

Tymoshenko is the heroine of the orange-clad protesters who overturned the rigged 2004 presidential election and forced a new vote won by Yushchenko, who doesn't face re-election until 2009.

Yushchenko rewarded Tymoshenko with the post of prime minister, but sacked her after bitter personal and policy differences. The president then made a peace pact with Yanukovych in exchange for his rival's support of Yuri Yekhanurov as Tymoshenko's successor.

Yushchenko on Sunday pledged to work for compromise. "We will start consultations (Monday) between the political forces that have formed a tentative coalition and that won in the Orange Revolution," Yushchenko said.

Tymoshenko told reporters her only option is to align with Yushchenko's party and Oleksander Moroz's Socialist Party, which also supported the Orange Revolution. She ruled out any alliance with Yanukovych.

But plenty of doubts remain about whether a Yushchenko-Tymoshenko pairing is durable, although a Yushchenko-Yanukovych alliance seems even more unlikely.

Those who study Ukraine's politics are not shocked by Yushchenko's dramatic slide in popularity after only 15 months in office.

Taras Kuzio, visiting professor at George Washington University, said Yushchenko has only himself to blame.

"He made two mistakes," Kuzio said. "He pushed Tymoshenko into opposition with him and signed a memorandum (of reconciliation) with Yanukovych. That led to a decline in his election chances."

Yushchenko also famously promised in 2004 to send the "bandits to prison," but hasn't made much progress. Plenty of high-profile crimes remain unsolved.

Secretly recorded audiotapes allegedly captured evidence of a criminal regime led by Yushchenko's predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, and his cronies.

More recently, those who ordered the 2004 presidential election rigged for Yanukovych have gone unpunished. The mysterious dioxin poisoning that almost killed Yushchenko that year also remains unsolved.

Despite Yushchenko's get-tough promises, his administration has charged only lower-level "patsies" for some crimes, Kuzio said. More discouragingly, Kuzio said, many former Kuchma aides implicated in serious crimes are going to parliament under Yanukovych's banner.

"Yushchenko didn't deliver. You don't see many in prison," agreed Andrew Wilson, author of "Ukraine's Orange Revolution."

"If he had put the right people in jail, he would have been forgiven a lot," Wilson said. "He is an insider. He prefers compromise."

Yushchenko also couldn't translate some of his successes, such as gaining free-market status for Ukraine's economy, into political victory.

His administration re-privatized Ukraine's giant steel plant, Krivorizhstal, for $4.8 billion—a better deal than the $800 million sweetheart deal that went to Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, and Ukraine's top tycoon, Rinat Akhmetov, a key Yanukovych backer.

But Yushchenko stopped Tymoshenko's attempts for a massive government resale of other questionable post-Soviet privatizations, fearing loss of investor confidence.

Yushchenko also got plastered by his rivals for a natural gas deal with Russia in January that nearly doubled the price paid by energy-dependent Ukraine. The pact exposed Yushchenko's incompetence, Yanukovych said, while Tymoshenko also vowed to shelve the deal.

But Yushchenko did make good on promises to make Ukraine more democratic. Sunday's election may have been the cleanest and fairest in the nation's post-Soviet history—an opportunity that many voters apparently seized upon to repudiate their president.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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