Recent Outcast Is Back in Favor in Ukraine Race

KIEV, Ukraine -- A campaign ad, broadcast repeatedly on television here, shows a man basking in the adulation of flag-waving crowds reminiscent of the protests that overturned the fraudulent election for president in 2004.

Viktor F. Yanukovich

But he is not Viktor A. Yushchenko, who rode those protests to the presidency, vowing to turn Ukraine into a free and prosperous democracy.

He is the man Mr. Yushchenko defeated, Viktor F. Yanukovich, the chosen heir of a discredited and unpopular government, who would have been president but for those huge street demonstrations and international diplomatic pressure.

A year ago, Mr. Yanukovich appeared disgraced, abandoned even by his own supporters. Now he leads a party predicted to win the most seats in the parliamentary elections that are only a little more than two months away.

Mr. Yushchenko, on the other hand, has been discredited by scandals, a worsening economy and internal disputes over policy that led him to fire a popular prime minister.

At a minimum Mr. Yanukovich could have a decisive role in choosing the new - and newly empowered - prime minister. He could even become prime minister himself, sharing power with his bitter rival. "We have set this goal: to win the election," Mr. Yanukovich said in an interview at his party headquarters in a 19th-century mansion here.

The March 26 election, in which thousands of candidates from 45 parties are competing for 450 parliamentary seats, will be the first electoral test of the political changes that Mr. Yushchenko promised during what became known as the Orange Revolution. But after a year of turmoil that culminated in popular anger over his handling of a dispute with Russia over natural gas, the prospects for Mr. Yushchenko's coalition are not promising.

In a poll released Friday by the Democratic Initiative Fund, Mr. Yanukovich's Party of Regions was favored by 31 percent of those who responded, compared with 13 percent for Mr. Yushchenko's bloc, led by the faction Our Ukraine. That is 3 percentage points behind the bloc of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who served as his first prime minister until Mr. Yushchenko dismissed her in September amid mutual accusations of corruption.

"The work of the authorities has been ineffective," Mr. Yanukovich said, when asked about his striking reversal of fortune. "Everything that happened this year worsened the economic levels, increased instability inside the country and worsened the image of our state in the world. For those in Ukraine that supported Mr. Yushchenko, it was a year of disappointment. For the part that did not, it was a year of trial, including for myself."

The rebound of Mr. Yanukovich is, in fact, less about his successes than Mr. Yushchenko's failings since he was inaugurated a year ago.

While Mr. Yushchenko is often portrayed abroad as a reform-minded democrat seeking to realign Ukraine toward Europe and the United States, his reputation at home has suffered from one problem after another.

"He has a Gorbachev syndrome," said Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor of sociology at the University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, referring to the former Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. "He looks better abroad than he does at home."

In the gas dispute, for example, Mr. Yushchenko appeared to have emerged victorious, having resisted Russia's demands for a nearly five-fold increase from the $50 per thousand cubic meters Ukraine was paying under a 2004 agreement.

But critics soon pounced on the new deal, which set the price on average at $95, publicizing details that the government had not, including the fact that the price was fixed for only six months and is likely to rise again. Members of Parliament and industrialists warned of harm to an already feeble economy and questioned the role of a murky gas-trading company with ties to Russia's energy monopoly, Gazprom.

Last Tuesday, Parliament voted to oust Mr. Yushchenko's prime minister and the rest of the government. At the time of the vote Mr. Yushchenko was in Kazakhstan, where he met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to praise the deal as mutually beneficial to both countries.

In a televised interview on Friday night, Mr. Yushchenko called those who voted against the government "the fifth column, for which a petty corporate or party interest is superior to stability in Ukraine now."

The political turmoil has, for now, worsened his split with Ms. Tymoshenko, the charismatic populist whose public role in the Orange Revolution was second only to his.

Coalitions in Ukraine, however, are ever shifting, and one of her advisers, Hyrhory M. Nemyrya, said Ms. Tymoshenko still hoped for an accommodation that would reunite the forces that defeated Mr. Yanukovich, President Leonid D. Kuchma's chosen successor.

Mr. Yanukovich, in contrast to Mr. Yushchenko, has succeeded in holding together his supporters, predominantly Russian speakers in the industrialized east and south, areas where Mr. Yushchenko has been unable to gain support.

Mr. Yanukovich, a former mechanic who rose through the ranks of regional government in Donetsk before serving as prime minister, remains his party's leader despite his defeat and other liabilities, including having served almost four years in prison after a conviction for robbery and assault as a young man.

In the 2004 election Mr. Yanukovich had strong support from the Kremlin. He still vows not to change Ukraine's foreign policy at the expense of Russia, though he had to distance himself in the gas dispute.

"It was wrong to try to corner Ukraine," he said of Russia.

Mr. Yushchenko's foreign minister, Boris I. Tarasyuk, contends that despite Mr. Yanukovich's seemingly stronger position, Ukrainians overwhelmingly support the course Mr. Yushchenko has set: integrating the country into the European Union and NATO, while building a democratic society and a market economy.

He predicted a pro-Yushchenko majority in Parliament, saying, "There will again be a coalition that supports the president."

Ukraine's new Parliament will have expanded powers, including the role of electing the prime minister, who has been appointed by the president.

Mr. Wynnyckyj, the professor of sociology, predicted a different outcome: a chaotic period of political instability like Italy's ever-revolving Parliaments in the 1970's and 80's.

He said that even if a new government could be formed, it would soon collapse, forcing new elections by 2007, if not sooner.

"There's no chance of a coalition because the personalities are getting in the way," he said.

Much depends on the fate of smaller parties, 9 or 10 of which could each clear the 3 percent threshold for winning seats. A new one is an alliance of the Party of Reforms and Order, a liberal party that was once Mr. Yushchenko's, and Pora, the youth group that provided much of the zeal during the protests of 2004.

One of Pora's leaders, Vladyslav V. Kaskiv, even works as a presidential adviser, but decided to run independently out of a belief that Ukrainian politics needed a new generation of leaders. He said the three most prominent ones these days all possessed "the same values."

Mr. Kaskiv was optimistic, however, about one thing.

"Politics cannot return to what it was before," he said, articulating perhaps the greatest success of the Orange Revolution. "It could be better or worse, but it will be a democratic process."

Source: The New York Times