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Russia-backed opposition set for comeback in Ukraine

Written by: Staff
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KIEV, Mar 26: Ukraine today voted in a crucial election that seemed certain to see a resurgence of Russia-backed forces and mark a step back from the pro-West ideals that piloted the ''Orange Revolution'' liberals to power.

As he cast his ballot today, sporting a bright orange tie, President Viktor Yushchenko said talks would start immediately after the election to form a government restoring the shattered coalition of liberal parties that backed the heady street protests of December 2004.

''Tomorrow we start consultations with political forces which made up the coalition which was victorious in the Orange evolution,'' he said.

But he was aware that much depended on the outcome and that disillusionment over his record has left his Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich, poised to bounce back on the political scene.

Pre-poll surveys say Yanukovich's Regions Party is sure to grab the biggest share of the vote. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party is second with the bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, his one-time ally, in third place.

Though his own job is not in the balance, if the Regions Party makes strong gains Yushchenko will probably have to reach an understanding with the man he humiliated in a presidential poll re-run in late 2004.

Yanukovich, beaming, said little as he voted, but was clearly confident. ''There will be a victory,'' he said.

The parliament will for the first time have powers to appoint the prime minister, steward of Ukraine's rocky economy.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose ''Orange'' leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after prising Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

OPTIMISM GONE

Optimism, generated by the turfing out of the pro-Moscow old guard, has evaporated amid slow growth and infighting. Though Ukrainians now enjoy total freedom of expression, monthly wages stand at only 150 dollars. Prices fluctuate erratically.

A maddening bureaucracy dating from Soviet times, frustrates activities like drawing pensions and getting medical care.

Western investors are wary of uncertain stability.

Ties with Russia remain unsteady. A New Year deal pushed gas prices sharply higher, ending a confrontation which briefly cut supplies to Ukraine -- and Moscow's European customers.

Forty-five parties are running, but polls show only five to seven will clear 3 per cent to enter the 450-seat assembly.

Queues built up at many polling stations as officials went to great lengths to check for fraud, and voters juggled with outsized ballot papers, measuring 80 cms (2 1/2 feet) in length.

''I came here to vote and I will stand here for as long as it takes to cast my vote,'' said pensioner Anna Petrovna.

Gennady, 48, saw the queue and left. ''I'll come back later when the crowd has gone down,'' he said. Polls close at OO3O hrs.

The only certainty is that a coalition will be needed.

Weeks, maybe months, of back-room bargaining lie ahead.

Not only is Yushchenko threatened by the political comeback of his old nemesis. He is also weakened by constitutional reform that has trimmed his powers and extended those of parliament.

Infighting in the Orange camp prompted Yushchenko to sack the charismatic Tymoshenko as prime minister last September, further tarnishing the image of the liberal leadership.

COALITION DANGERS

Yushchenko faces the knowledge that he may have to team up with his old adversary, Yanukovich, or make up with Tymoshenko.

Either marriage of convenience carries dangers.

A ''grand coalition'' with Yanukovich's party could require concessions such as sacrificing pro-Western advocates like Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk. His power base might also be eroded.

But patching up with Tymoshenko also comes at a high price.

She would like her job of premier back, a difficult step given her interventionist views and Yushchenko's free market values.

Tymoshenko, virulent in denouncing any move to link ''Orange'' forces with Yanukovich, said after voting in the central city of Dnipropetrovsk: ''Ukraine has a perfect chance to have a perfect government and we will do everything for this.''

REUTERS

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