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KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich appeared set on Sunday to avenge his humiliation by Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2004 "Orange Revolution," exit polls showing him beating her narrowly in a presidential run-off.
Tagged a Kremlin stooge in 2004 after he was congratulated prematurely by Russia in a rigged election, Yanukovich had his initial victory in that poll snatched away by a court ruling after mass streets protests.
The pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who was then backed by the charismatic Tymoshenko, went on to win a re-run vote.
The 59-year-old ex-mechanic owes his comeback to financial support from wealthy industrialists in his home region in eastern Ukraine for whom he has become, by circumstance, the only horse to back.
He played on popular discontent with Yushchenko and profited from the squabbling between the president and his Prime Minister Tymoshenko, his erstwhile "orange" ally.
"I have done everything to stop this madness for the past five years," Yanukovich said in a television interview. "The aim of the so-called Orange Revolution ... was to weaken Russia but not to strengthen our state."
He built his domestic program round the simple message of fighting poverty. "The utter poverty of millions of Ukrainians is the real enemy of Ukraine," he said last month.
Campaigning under the slogan: "There is a leader, there is a state," Yanukovich struck a chord with many by berating his "orange" adversaries for ignoring the people.
He says he favors a strong, independent, neutral Ukraine. He has, like Tymoshenko, called for improved relations with Ukraine's former Soviet master Russia, and has rejected Yushchenko's moves toward membership of NATO.
Although his Party of the Regions has an alliance with the Kremlin's United Russia party, Yanukovich, a tall, heavy-set man, is careful to avoid appearing too close to Russia and also calls for gradual integration into Europe.
But he is often ambiguous when he speaks on specific issues relating to Ukraine's independent line from Russia.
He says the scheduled withdrawal from Sevastopol in 2017 of the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be settled without harming Ukraine's national interests. But he adds it will also be done without damaging strategic, friendly ties with Russia.
Meeting Russia's new ambassador to Ukraine last Friday, he renewed his pledges to improve ties with Moscow, if elected president.
"I am sure that we will be able to tie up a number of agreements in the near future which will be very much in the interests of Ukraine and of Russia," he told Mikhail Zurabov.
Yanukovich was born on July 9, 1950 into a Russian-speaking, working-class family in the Donetsk region. His mother died when he was two and he had a rough childhood where his fists and physical size stood him in good stead.
He served time in jail as a youth for petty crimes involving assault but these were later struck officially from the record.
He himself refers to the "mistakes of youth" but says his hard background helped him climb the political ladder.
He trained as a mechanical engineer, rising finally to become the governor of Donetsk -- a key steel-and-coal-producing region -- and almost immediately prime minister under then President Leonid Kuchma in 2002.
As a public speaker, he is stilted in his delivery and often stumbles over words, particularly when speaking in Ukrainian. This plays badly in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country.
He still sounds as if he is repeating a rehearsed script, though his performance has improved since he was taken in hand by a U.S.-based team of public relations strategists.
His patchy education -- publicly ridiculed by Tymoshenko -- shows through. In an interview with a group of foreign media in late January, he confused the two former Yugoslav regions, Montenegro and Kosovo, when making a point about South Ossetia.
He has promised to correct what he terms the mistakes of the past five years, which have seen repeated rows with Russia over energy supplies and a deep economic crisis.
Cast as the villain of the 2004 "Orange Revolution," he began a comeback in 2006 when Yushchenko reluctantly appointed him premier after "orange" parties failed to form a coalition.
But he left office after those parties beat his Regions Party and its allies in a snap 2007 election.
Yanukovich's campaign has been helped by U.S. political consultant Paul Manafort, whose business partner helped manage John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.