Ukraine rivals eye votes of eliminated poll candidates
* Tymoshenko camp eyes votes of 3rd placed Tigipko
* Yanukovich sees "European path" for Ukraine
* Yanukovich, Tymoshenko square off in Feb. 7 final vote
By Richard Balmforth
KIEV, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Ukraine's two presidential hopefuls squared up on Tuesday for a final bid for election next month with their camps focusing on how to scoop up the votes of candidates knocked out in Sunday's first round.
Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich has a 10 percent lead over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with nearly all votes from Sunday counted. Analysts say a close contest is on the cards.
Aides of Tymoshenko said supporters of businessman Sergey Tigipko, former foreign minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and other eliminated candidates -- accounting for roughly 30 percent of the vote -- were more likely to favour her than Yanukovich.
But some analysts said supporters of the defeated candidates could not be presumed to back Tymoshenko and the 10 percent gap was a lot for even a strong performer like the populist prime minister to make up.
The 6 percent vote that went to President Viktor Yushchenko, her patron-turned-rival who has launched bitter attacks on her and stymied her policies, seemed unlikely to come her way.
The outcome on Feb. 7 will shape how Ukraine, an ex-Soviet state of 46 million people lying between the European Union and Russia, handles relations with its powerful neighbours.
It should also unlock frozen International Monetary Fund cash for Ukraine's stricken economy. The Fund broke off its $16.4 billion programme because Kiev breached pledges to control the budget deficit.
The Tymoshenko camp particularly eyed Tigipko, a 49-year-old former central bank chief who performed strongly as an independent and came third with a 13 per cent share of the vote.
A Tymoshenko aide said negotiations were under way with him.
The newspaper Delo said the populist leader was ready to reward him with the post of prime minister and hand him half the ministerial portfolios in exchange for his public support.
But one political analyst said any offer of the premiership was a poisoned chalice, given the wretched state of the economy.
"The person who takes over the prime minister's post under these circumstances has to recognise that he will simply be a sacrificial lamb or on the second day he will be the president's political opponent," said analyst Andrei Yermolayev.
Yanukovich, a 59-year-old ex-mechanic from the Donbass industrial heartland, bounced back from disgrace in 2004 when he was tarred by a rigged election.
Officials results showed he pulled in about 35 per cent of the vote on Sunday against Tymoshenko's roughly 25 per cent.
But his support is fixed firmly in the Russian-speaking south and east and he will have to work hard to make inroads into Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west and the centre which may be more inclined to favour Tymoshenko.
"We have grounds for assuming that those voters who gave approximately 30 per cent of the votes to other candidates will support Tymoshenko," said Serhiy Sobolev, a member of her parliamentary bloc BYuT, on television's 5th Channel.
"Yesterday we agreed on a first direct meeting between our camp and that of Tigipko which both sides have confirmed. Talks are going on now in this way," Sobolev said.
Tigipko, a former banker and ex-minister whose wealth in 2009 was put at $345 million by the magazine Korrespondent, headed Yanukovich's campaign team in 2004.
After the Orange Revolution that propelled Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to power, he subsequently renewed contacts with Tymoshenko and became, for a time, one of her advisers.
But before Sunday's vote he said he would not support either Yanukovich or Tymoshenko. He stayed out of the public eye on Tuesday, avoiding contacts with journalists.
Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have pledged to seek better relations with neighbouring energy supplier Russia, in part to avoid the rows of recent years which led to supply cut-offs affecting parts of Europe. They have both also said they will work for closer integration with the European Union.
Speaking on Tuesday after attending an Orthodox Epiphany church service, Yanukovich pledged to work for an equal partnership with Russia.
"Ukraine's policy will be balanced and national interest will occupy first place," he said. But he added that he would lead Ukraine "along the European road".
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on whoever won power to improve ties.
"I am sure that the new Ukrainian president... will fully understand the need to develop relations this way and not make them hostage to their own, or someone else's, political ambitions," he told journalists. (Editing by Dominic Evans) (For a link to a TAKE A LOOK click on [ID:nGEE5B9114]
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