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Orange leaders face shutout in Ukraine election

People travelling on a bus pass a billboard for presidential candidate Sergei Tigipko in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. Former economics minister and the Presidential candidate Sergey Tigipko has seemingly come out of nowhere to challenge the front-runners in the final days of Ukraine's presidential election contest. The first round of voting in Ukraine's presidential election is set for January 17. People travelling on a bus pass a billboard for presidential candidate Sergei Tigipko in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. Former economics minister and the Presidential candidate Sergey Tigipko has seemingly come out of nowhere to challenge the front-runners in the final days of Ukraine's presidential election contest. The first round of voting in Ukraine's presidential election is set for January 17. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
By Simon Shuster
Associated Press Writer / January 13, 2010

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KIEV, Ukraine—A wealthy businessman has made surprising gains against the two front-runners in Ukraine's presidential race, suggesting a possible shutout for both pro-Western leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko have failed to deliver sweeping democratic reform or economic stability, and their constant feuding has put the government in a state of deadlock.

Those failings have helped make pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych the front-runner in Sunday's election.

Tymoshenko, a charismatic leader with wealthy backers, has been expected to advance with Yanukovych to a runoff vote in February. But now Sergei Tigipko, 49, a banking magnate and former economy minister, has pulled even with her according to a poll released Wednesday, suggesting for the first time that neither of the Orange leaders may make it into the second round.

This would overturn the peaceful revolution of 2004 that vaulted Tymoshenko into power and pushed Ukraine away from Russia's orbit and toward a path of European integration.

It would also be a vindication for Yanukovych, whose 2004 election victory was thrown out by the Supreme Court after weeks of mass street protests led by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

In the West, the Orange Revolution was seen as a victory for democracy and for efforts to loosen Russia's influence over ex-Soviet states. But five years on, Ukraine's bids to join NATO and the EU have hardly gotten off the ground, and most leading politicians are seeking to rebuild ties with Russia.

Yushchenko, an adamant westernizer, is an exception, but his approval ratings are in the single digits and his re-election campaign is a longshot.

The opinion poll released Wednesday by Russian state-run polling agency VTsIOM put Tigipko slightly ahead of Tymoshenko with 14.4 percent support against her 13.9 percent. Yanukovych was far ahead with 30.5 percent in the poll, which was conducted Jan. 3-10 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Ukraine's election rules prohibited local polling agencies from releasing surveys after Jan. 2. The most recent Ukrainian survey, released Dec. 29 by polling agency FOM-Ukraine, put Tigipko in third place behind Tymoshenko in the country as a whole, but ahead of her in southern and eastern Ukraine by several percentage points. That survey was conducted Dec. 17-22 and also had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Tigipko said Wednesday he has already spent about $11 million of his banking fortune on the campaign, bolstering the image he has tried to project of an independent candidate not beholden to any of Ukraine's business or political factions.

Tigipko's popularity began to surge after the amateur bodybuilder appeared on the December cover of Men's Health magazine in Ukraine wearing a tight T-shirt and jeans. He followed this up with appearances on TV talk shows and a huge advertising campaign that covered the Ukrainian capital with his billboards.

At a press conference Wednesday, Tigipko sought middle ground between Yanukovych's pro-Russian platform and Tymoshenko's traditional focus on Ukrainian nationalism and European integration.

He said Ukraine was not yet ready to seek membership in the European Union or NATO and must first focus on forming a unified government that can stimulate the country's flagging economy. In the long term, however, he said Ukraine must move toward European integration.

Tigipko also said he would seek to repair damaged relations with Russia and would extend the lease Russia has on a naval base in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol if Moscow made "a good offer." But he said he would not make Russian an official language in Ukraine -- as Yanukovych vows to do -- one of the most divisive issues in the election campaign so far.

Whereas Tymoshenko usually speaks only Ukrainian and Yanukovych prefers Russian, Tigipko switched back and forth between the two languages Wednesday.

At the final press conference of his luckless campaign, Yushchenko said Tuesday that Yanukovych would likely progress into the second round but not win.

"Whoever goes to the second round with him will defeat him," Yushchenko said.

Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday -- and with 18 people in the race this appears unlikely -- the two top finishers will go head-to-head on Feb. 7.