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Ukraine presidential race revives bitter rivalry

After voters on Sunday rejected incumbent President – and 'Orange Revolution' hero – Viktor Yushchenko, the Feb. 7 second round will revolve around the starkly differing styles of rivals Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich.

By Correspondent / January 18, 2010

Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich speaks to the media during a news conference in Kiev Monday.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

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Moscow

An epic battle is shaping up in Ukraine as two bitter rivals, Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, prepare to slug it out over the next three weeks for the dubious prize of leading a nation that's economically devastated and politically disillusioned as well as profoundly divided between its Russian-speaking, pro-Moscow eastern provinces and its more nationalist, Europe-leaning west.

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President Viktor Yushchenko, who was lIfted to power five years ago on the wings of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution, went down in flames in this presidential election's first round Sunday, winning barely 5 percent of the votes, according to the nearly-complete official first count on Monday.

The second round, pitting frontrunner Mr. Yanukovich, who won about 35 percent support in the first round, against Ms. Tymoshenko, who garnered about 25 percent of the votes, is slated for Feb. 7.

With Mr. Yushchenko out of the running, much of the East-West geopolitical tension that has marred Ukraine's domestic politics in recent years may now dissipate, leaving the contenders to address the country's dire economic crisis, its endemic official corruption (Ukraine holds 146th place on the Berlin-based Transparency International's annual global corruption ratings), and the status of the Russian language, which is spoken by about a third of Ukrainians.

Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have signaled that they would go slow on many of the anti-Moscow policies that Yushchenko championed, including speedy NATO membership, integration with the European Union, and plans to evict the Russian Navy from its historic Black Sea headquarters in Crimea.

But experts say the contest is likely to be ferocious, and will revolve around the clashing personalities and starkly differing styles of two Ukrainian political giants who have grappled repeatedly over the past five years and now face their ultimate confrontation.

"There is a fear that this struggle between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich could destabilize Ukraine's political process if it gets out of hand," says Alexander Sushko, an expert with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. "Neither of them has a natural sentiment for democracy, as Yushchenko did, and the biggest threat we face is that the loser may call supporters into the streets," to overturn an adverse popular verdict, he warns.

Both contenders will seek to attract the nearly 35 percent of votes garnered by more that a dozen losing candidates in the first round, many of whom indicated Monday that they are undecided about where to throw their support.

Yushchenko's office noted tersely Monday that the president will not be making any recommendations. "[Yushchenko's] ideas differ sharply from those persons," his spokesman said.

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