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Hard sell for Ukraine's Tymoshenko on rival's turf

* PM visits rival stronghold in presidential campaign

* No patience for politicians, but Yanukovich trusted more

ODESSA, Ukraine, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Ukrainian presidential contender Yulia Tymoshenko has taken her impassioned pro-European campaign into her rival’s heartland, but her call fell mostly on deaf ears in the Russian-speaking port of Odessa.

The fast-talking prime minister rattled off a list of her government’s achievements and repeated her mantra that Ukraine needs cleaner politics when she faced an audience on Saturday in the bustling southern city, rich in Russian imperial history.

The system of cronyism and corruption backed by rich tycoons and their business interests must be replaced, she said, and the country faced a stark choice in the Feb. 7 election in which she faces opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, 59.

“The first path is one where Ukraine has very good relations with Europe, one with which we could create European business, traditions and laws,” she told her audience. “And the second path is the path dictated by a few companies in Ukraine.”

The speech by the slightly-built Tymoshenko, who wore her trademark peasant-style braid, a pale dress and high heels for extra lift, would have drawn delirious cries of support in the west and centre of Ukraine.

But it drew only polite applause in Odessa, a former jewel of the old Russian empire and a part of Ukraine which was never really keen on the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought pro-Western leaders, including Tymoshenko, to power.

In the first round of the election on Jan. 17, 50 percent of voters in Odessa chose Yanukovich, who gains his support from the east and south of the country, and only 10 percent backed Tymoshenko, who is popular in the west. In the country as a whole, Yanukovich led Tymoshenko by 10 percentage points.

The two could not differ more in style.

She is a gas magnate turned social crusader and a leader of the mass street protests of 2004 which overturned a Yanukovich victory in a rigged election. He is a burly ex-mechanic who rose through the political ranks in the Soviet era.


Ukraine’s tumultuous history means the country and its politicians can be divided into the west, once part of Poland and with a European outlook, and the south and east, industrial heartland that was dominated for centuries by Russia.

In Odessa, founded on the Black Sea by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, a booming trade to Europe, Turkey and onwards has turned the city into a cosmopolitan centre where one in five are Russian and many more speak the language.

Tymoshenko chose to speak in Ukrainian -- the state language -- though she herself was born in the Russian-speaking east.

“Ah, nothing I have heard here from her is going to change my mind. I’ve heard this all before,” said chemistry student Alexander, after listening to Tymoshenko.

“Yulia, she’s European. I voted for Yanukovich in the first round and I will vote for him again. I myself am from Crimea and he supports the Russian language,” he said.

Tymoshenko, 49, has built her success around her ability to tap into people’s anger at injustice, broken promises, a chaotic justice system and a corrupt bureaucracy that demands bribes for better hospital treatment or university places.

But bitter recriminations between her and incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko since they led the Orange Revolution have further undermined support for her in the south.

“Look, from that entire zoo, I trust Yanukovich the most. He promises something and then he does it,” said Alexander Goncharov, a 54-year-old local businessman.

For many, Yanukovich’s tough past -- he grew up in poverty, was orphaned as a child and served time in jail for assault and theft during the 1970s -- shows only that he has been hardened into a resolute and decisive man.

As the Orange camp disintegrated, Ukraine fell deep into recession and was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund with a $16.4 billion programme. Bickering stalled that plan at the end of 2009 when the economy shrank by up to 15 percent.

“Look at us -- we stand knee deep in mud for 12 hours to make a pittance. I can barely afford meat any more,” said Luba, selling clothes in the main market by the train station where meat, vegetables and gadgets are on offer in the open air.

Luba is a pensioner who supports her husband, a disabled war veteran. She said she is tired of politicians who work for their own interests while food prices keep going up, and she does not plan to vote.

“What we need to do is take the whole parliament away. And start anew with new people,” she said. “I was saying during the Orange Revolution -- they are all the same old faces. And now they are still the same old faces.” (Editing by Richard Balmforth and Mark Trevelyan)