KIEV (Reuters) - Whatever happened to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution?
As the country starts its first presidential election campaign since that popular movement in 2004 broke the grip of the post-Soviet establishment, its leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, stares a painful reality in the face.
Opinion polls point to Viktor Yanukovich, his disgraced Moscow-backed opponent back then, getting easily through a January 17 election to go into a run-off vote.
Just as bitter for Yushchenko — his erstwhile “Orange” ally but now rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is almost certain to be the other player in the second-round showdown, analysts say.
The 55-year-old president has ratings so low that none but his most loyal supporters see a chance of re-election.
Most Ukrainians hope the vote, for which official campaigning begins Monday, will end five years of political in-fighting that has paralyzed decision-making and frustrated reform in one of Europe’s worst performing economies.
It will also decide the extent to which the ex-Soviet state of 47 million will stick to Yushchenko’s pro-western blueprint or toe a more compliant line toward its old master, Russia.
No matter who triumphs, most analysts expect renewed efforts to improve frosty ties with Russia — including pushing the pursuit of NATO membership firmly on to the back-burner — without abandoning the democratic strides Ukraine has made.
The two have been involved in disputes over the pricing and supply of Russian natural gas across Ukrainian territory to Europe. The Russian Black Sea fleet based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol could become a serious source of friction.
But both Yanukovich, a former prime minister from the hard school of eastern Ukraine politics, and Tymoshenko will fend off competition from Russian big business and attempts to tug Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, analysts say.
“The course for integration into the European Union and NATO will be pushed back for at least five years,” said Vadym Karasev, director of the Institute for Global Strategies.
“The country will be suspended between the post-Soviet world of yesterday and the European one of tomorrow.”
A poll this month put Yanukovich, whose power base is in Russian-speaking regions of the country, in front with 28.7 per cent. Tymoshenko had 19 percent, according to the SOCIS survey.
The challenge from former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 35, who had been seen as a rival for Tymoshenko’s vote, has leveled off. Support for him was at 8.2 per cent.
But these ratings may hold good only for the first round.
Tymoshenko, 48, a firebrand who sports a peasant hair-plait, can quickly find the pulse of a crowd as she showed in 2004 with electrifying performances during the Orange street protests.
Pro-Tymoshenko advertising in Kiev proclaims: “She works!.” Her campaign will focus on her energy and decisiveness.
Yanukovich, 59, a towering man who heads the pro-business Party of the Regions, seems sure to champion Russian-language rights, oppose NATO membership and emphasize what he has denounced as the “chaos” of the Yushchenko years, analysts say.
“Yanukovich will not be a puppet of Moscow, but the degree of influence of Moscow on Yanukovich will be greater than that on Tymoshenko,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
But in a run-off, Yanukovich may find it hard to strike a chord in central Ukraine — a key battleground — or make inroads in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
On balance, most analysts believe Tymoshenko will outperform the sometimes clumsy Yanukovich in a head-to-head clash in February. But, as steward of the economy, Tymoshenko might still see her ratings take a knock if there is more bad economic news.
Ukrainians have seen the national currency, the hryvnia, lose more than a third of its value against the dollar — hard for the many who purchased big on dollar credit and are now facing rising pay-back terms.
A lot too depends on Ukraine’s business billionaires, who have no qualms about putting their money behind a candidate — though they switch sides easily.
A turnaround in Yushchenko’s fortunes seems unlikely.
He ousted Yanukovich in 2004 after a rigged election was quashed by the Supreme Court and he went on to win a re-run.
But he has been an indecisive leader. His nationalistic and other policies have won little broad support. His incessant sniping at Tymoshenko has also backfired on him, many say.
But others say he has not been given the credit for a significant pro-democracy shift in society during his rule.
“This is a pluralistic society. There is a free press. The economy is in a mess but Ukraine is the freest country in the Commonwealth of Independent States,” said one foreign observer.
Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov in Kiev and Lina Kushch in Donetsk; Editing by Janet Lawrence