Viktor Yanukovich, the burly former mechanic ousted by popular revolt just five years ago, salvaged himself to claim top place among contenders for the Ukrainian presidency Sunday, exit polls indicated.
His longtime rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, will be a close second, the survey predicted. The exit poll results, if borne out by the slow counting of ballots, mean that the contentious pair will battle for the presidency in a runoff next month.
The choice of a new leader marks a milestone in Ukraine’s post-Soviet evolution, and many voters appeared disillusioned and hungry for change -- if wary of fresh rounds of infighting and scrapping for power among the Ukrainian elite.
A survey from the widely respected National Exit Poll consortium gave Yanukovich 31.5% of the vote to Tymoshenko’s 27.2%, topping a field of 18 candidates. A runoff will be held because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote.
Within hours of the polls closing Sunday night, the leading candidates were already scrambling to pick up as many of the losing candidates’ votes as possible. Many analysts believe Tymoshenko, 49, will have the advantage in gaining votes in the second round.
Tymoshenko strode into a news conference grinning from ear to ear and launched into a blistering criticism of Yanukovich, 59, calling him the stooge of “criminals and oligarchs.” She called upon all Ukrainians who voted for “democratic” candidates to throw their support behind her.
“I’m telling those who voted for other democratic candidates, we now have the chance to do what we could never do in the past: to unite all the democratic forces in the country,” Tymoshenko said. “I’m ready to excuse every democratic candidate for the things they said about me. I’m ready to turn that page.”
Yanukovich soon chimed in with similar appeals to voters. “They thought they could make promises from election to election and not fulfill the promises, that people will forget,” he said of Tymoshenko and her allies.
The improbable reversal of Yanukovich’s fortune points up the changes that have rattled Ukraine in past years.
The last time Ukrainians voted for a president, in 2004, Yanukovich won but his victory was tarnished by allegations of vote rigging. Enraged crowds stormed into the streets to demand his ouster, and the Orange Revolution was born.
The ensuing seasons have been tumultuous and often painful for Ukraine. The politicians who had marched boldly through the frigid streets calling for a reinvented Ukraine were now in office -- and promptly lost themselves in Byzantine power plays, internecine wars and flashy shows of dubiously acquired wealth.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis under President Viktor Yushchenko has hammered the country, radically devaluing the currency and spreading unemployment and uncertainty throughout the provinces.
“People are feeling that they’ve been lied to,” said Larisa Kuchuba, a 60-year-old engineer who braved snow and thick blankets of black ice Sunday to vote in south Kiev.
Kuchuba cast her vote for one of the lesser-known opposition candidates. She didn’t believe he stood the slightest chance of winning; her vote was cast in protest, she said.
“The politicians did everything to keep one another from succeeding. They didn’t do anything for the success of the country,” she said. “All they did was fight.”
Analysts warned that the presidency would be a bitterly fought-for prize, with the candidates accusing one another of fraud and going to court. The battle could drag on for months beyond the runoff.
With the exit of Yushchenko, whose approval ratings wallowed in the single digits in recent months, Ukraine loses a president who strove to shake off the grip of Moscow and reorient Ukraine as a Westernized land with strong allies in Brussels and Washington.
But in a country where many people grow up speaking Russian and feel nostalgically, culturally and religiously intertwined with Russia, Yushchenko’s approach chafed nerves -- and eventually backfired as his opponents blamed him for the dangerous deterioration of relations with Moscow.
The Kremlin now appears poised to restore some of its lost influence in Ukraine because both leading candidates have friendly relations with Russian leaders.
In the years since the Orange Revolution, the very word “orange” lost its linguistic role as proud shorthand for the leaders who presented themselves as pro-Western reformers and became an adjective generally uttered with a grimace or a roll of the eyes.
Its affections historically split between Russia and Europe, Ukraine became a coveted battleground for influence between Russia and the U.S., which heartily backed its drift away from Moscow.
But even that status was lost: Ukraine found its foreign policy importance downgraded as President Obama sought to ease tensions with the Kremlin.