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Ukraine votes, gives verdict on "Orange" leaders

Written by: Staff

KIEV, Mar 26 (Reuters) Ukraine passes judgement on its ''Orange Revolution'' leaders today in an election sure to see a resurgence of Russia-backed forces and mark a step back from the pro-West ideals that piloted the liberals to power.

President Viktor Yushchenko goes into the election for a parliament, that for the first time will have powers to appoint a prime minister, aware that his old Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich, seems poised for a stunning political comeback.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million whose 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.

Forty-five parties are running, but polls show that only from five to seven will clear the 3 percent barrier to win seats. Polls open at 0930 hrs IST and close at 0030 hrs IST tomorrow.

The only certainty after the vote is that a coalition will be needed. Weeks, and perhaps months, of back-room bargaining lie ahead before the country gets a stable, workable government.

In an interview with Reuters, Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said talks to form a coalition would be ''long and tedious'' and a new government was likely to be formed only in July.

Wildly popular after the heady street protests that turfed out Yanukovich and the Russia-backed old guard, Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution comrades have since disappointed swathes of the population by failing to improve their lot.

Pensions and public sector wages have gone up, but prices for basic foodstuffs swing around erratically. Economic growth slumped to 2.6 percent last year compared with 12.1 percent in 2004 and Western investors are anxious not to get their fingers burned in a country whose stability is uncertain.

FREER MEDIA The media are now as free as in the West and society is free of oppressive state apparatus, but corruption remains prevalent.

Infighting in the Orange camp over corruption charges that prompted Yushchenko to sack his comrade, Yulia Tymoshenko, last September further tarnished the image of the liberal leadership.

As the 37 million electors prepared to cast their ballot for the 450-seat parliament, Yushchenko faced the uncomfortable knowledge that he may either have to team up with his old nemesis, Yanukovich, or patch up his quarrel with Tymoshenko.

Surveys show Yanukovich's Regions Party is sure to grab the biggest share of the popular vote. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party lies second with the Tymoshenko bloc in third place.

Whatever coalition emerges, each marriage of convenience will carry dangers for Yushchenko.

A 'grand coalition' with Yanukovich's party could require concessions from Yushchenko such as sacrificing more strident pro-Western advocates, like foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk.

Tymoshenko told Yushchenko last week that teaming up with Yanukovich would be ''tantamount to al Qaeda joining with the U.S. Republican Party''. She warned him such a step could erode his grass-roots power base.

But patching up with the charismatic and voluble Tymoshenko also comes at a high price for Yushchenko.

The 45-year-old is insisting on getting her old job of premier back -- a difficult step given her interventionist views that clash with Yushchenko's free market values.

In a televised speech on Friday as campaigning closed Yushchenko said: ''I am certain that a future coalition should be united around strategic objectives, but not egoistic desires'' -- a definite swipe at Tymoshenko.

Reuters PDS VP0610

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