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Ukraine's leaders bicker as economy burns

Not long ago, they were Orange Revolution allies. Now, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko despise each other.

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Last week, Tymoshenko's parliamentary coalition voted to dismiss the governor of Ukraine's National Bank, a Yushchenko appointee whose job is to save the country's teetering banking system, even though there is no potential replacement on the horizon.

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Tymoshenko, who earned a fortune peddling Russian gas to the Ukrainian market in the 1990s, is accused by Yushchenko's backers of selling out to Moscow in exchange for the Kremlin's political support in winning the presidency. Such heated rhetoric is not unusual in Kiev's current atmosphere, say experts, including Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, an independent think tank, and a former adviser to the prime minister. "Yushchenko is pursuing a scorched earth campaign to stop Tymoshenko, and even seems willing to take her down with him."

The prime minister has hurled similar invective, describing Yushchenko as a "state criminal," Mr. Nebozhenko says. "The competition between the two of them is highly personal, and deeply dangerous for the country."

A divided Ukraine heads to the polls

Few experts believe allegations that Tymoshenko is in Mr. Putin's pocket, but some say she may be angling for the Kremlin's support in the electoral battle to come. The logic lies in Ukraine's deep cultural split, in which the country's heavily Russified and pro-Moscow east and is pitted against its nationalistic and Europe-leaning west. The majority of eastern voters back the Russia-friendly Party of Regions, which led the pack with 22 percent support in a mid-December survey conducted by the independent Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kiev. Tymoshenko follows with 14 percent, while Yushchenko has fallen into the realm of statistical error, with just 2.2 percent, according to the poll.

The trick for Tymoshenko, who has rolled up most of Yushchenko's "Orange" support, is to win votes in pro-Moscow eastern Ukraine, and for that she needs a nod from the Kremlin, says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Global Strategies Institute in Kiev. "The Kremlin wants to remove Yushchenko because he embodies the pro-Western and pro-NATO membership course for Ukraine," he says. "Tymoshenko has shown flexibility on the big geopolitical issues and, unlike Yanukovych, she can win votes all across Ukraine."

Sign of democracy or seeds of dictatorship?

Some observers worry that things might come to a head long before the presidential polls at the end of the year. "The Ukrainian state is in danger of losing control over the situation," says Andrei Yermolayev, director of the independent Sofia Center for Social and Political Studies in Kiev. "The gloves have come off, and each side is fighting for a monopoly of power. One possible outcome of this struggle is the emergence of an authoritarian regime in Kiev."

Other experts believe that after nearly two decades of independence from the USSR, democracy has become firmly entrenched as a means for Ukrainians to settle differences.

"If the economic situation gets really bad, the authorities will let steam out through new parliamentary elections," says Mr. Vydrin. "Because we are a democracy, we have this option to let the population channel their anger in peaceful and creative ways."