The front-runners in Ukraine’s presidential race have vowed to revive ties with Russia if elected — a strong signal that tomorrow’s vote could mark the end of the Western-oriented leadership ushered in by Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who sought to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and toward Europe during the Orange movement, said in a last-minute appeal to voters that as president she would work closely with Moscow.
Polls show Tymoshenko trailing pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych, the Orange forces’ most prominent foe, in the closing hours of the contest for Ukraine’s highest office.
Over the past year, Tymoshenko has developed a personal rapport with her former nemesis, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. She has also courted voters, especially in the country’s Russian-speaking east and south, who want an end to tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
The former communist states share deep historical, linguistic and ethnic ties, but Kiev and Moscow have clashed in recent years over everything from the status of the Russian language to Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. The Orange Revolution was reviled in the Kremlin, which has since taken firm steps to avoid a similar opposition movement from arising in Russia.
In one of Tymoshenko’s firmest statements about Russian ties during the long presidential race, she said on Thursday that she would avoid antagonizing Moscow and seek a partnership that would benefit both countries.
“I want both sides to clearly understand each other’s positions ... and build mutually beneficial relations,” Tymoshenko said.
“As the future president, I will aim for the most peaceful and constructive, but also firm and pragmatic, relations with Russia and other countries that are fundamentally tied to the national interests of Ukraine,” she said.
In November, Putin praised Tymoshenko in comments widely seen as an endorsement of her candidacy.
“We feel comfortable working with Tymoshenko’s government, and I think that during the time of our cooperation the relations between Russia and Ukraine have stabilized and strengthened,” Putin said in the Ukrainian city of Yalta.
Tymoshenko was one of the leaders of the Orange movement who called for reform of Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt government and tried to put the country on a path toward European integration.
But her alliance with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the other leader of the Orange Revolution, broke down not long after the Orange victory amid recriminations and maneuvering for political advantage.
As the ruling duo, they have seen their popularity plummet largely because of their inability to handle the effects of the global financial crisis that hit Ukraine harder last year than almost any other country in Europe.
Yushchenko has seen his ratings dip to a single digit, making his re-election seem like a long shot. But the resilient Tymoshenko has retained sympathy among the electorate in part by tempering her attacks against the Kremlin and projecting the image of an industrious leader.
Known for her glamor and oratorical skills, Tymoshenko made her name and her fortune in the natural gas business as head of Ukraine’s largest energy firm in the 1990s.
Later she moved into politics as a foe of then-president Leonid Kuchma, who courted the West but maintained close ties to Moscow during his decade as president between 1994 to 2004.
She gained international attention in 2004 as the blond-braided leader of the Orange Revolution, the nonviolent street protests that ushered her and Yushchenko to power in 2005 amid high hopes of EU membership and freedom from Russia’s influence.
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