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Russia-backed opposition leads in Ukraine-exit polls

Written by: Staff

KIEV, Mar 27 (Reuters) The party of Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovich, loser in a presidential poll in Ukraine's 2004 ''Orange Revolution'', held a clear lead today's parliamentary election, exits polls showed.

But an even bigger blow for the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko came from the bloc of his estranged ''Orange Revolution'' ally Yulia Tymoshenko, who flew past him into second place leaving his Our Ukraine party badly trailing.

The projected outcome, that could mark a step away from the pro-West ideals espoused by the Orange Revolution which turfed out Yanukovich and a pro-Moscow establishment, was also a personal humiliation for Yushchenko at Tymoshenko's hands.

An exit poll conducted by three Ukrainian institutions gave Yanukovich's Regions party 33.3 per cent of the vote, the Tymoshenko bloc 22.7 and the pro-presidential party 13.5.

A second exit poll gave roughly the same picture, putting the Regions Party at 27.5 percent, the Tymoshenko bloc at 21.6 and Our Ukraine on 15.5 percent.

Once close 'orange' comrades in the heady street protests of 2004 that turfed out the pro-Moscow establishment, Yushchenko and his charismatic former premier have been on poor terms since he sacked her as prime minister last September.

Now long weeks of talks will probably be needed to piece together a coalition able to command a majority in parliament which, under new constitutional rules, is empowered to choose the prime minister.

Yushchenko, voting in central Kiev, said earlier that talks would start immediately after the election.

''Tomorrow we start consultations with political forces which made up the coalition which was victorious in the Orange Revolution,'' he said as he cast his ballot in central Kiev.

But disillusionment over splits in the ''orange'' team and a economic slowdown had clearly contributed to the big score for Yanukovich, who commands strong support among Russian speakers in industrial eastern Ukraine.

Tymoshenko, 45, a voluble and persuasive performer, has been for months blaming the president and his entourage for splits in the 'orange' ranks and had clearly been heeded by large swathes of the liberal vote.

A DEAL WITH THE OPPOSITION Though his own job is not at risk, the apparent outcome means Yushchenko will probably have to reach awkward accommodations with either his old rival from the bruising 2004 campaign or Tymoshenko.

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.

Though Ukrainians now enjoy total freedom of expression, monthly wages stand at only 150 dollars. Prices fluctuate erratically.

A maddening bureaucracy remains as does systematic corruption. Western investors are wary of uncertain stability.

Yushchenko is also weakened by constitutional reform that has trimmed his powers and extended those of parliament.

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.

Infighting in the Orange camp prompted Yushchenko to sack Tymoshenko as prime minister.

Both a coalition with Yanukovich or one with Tymoshenko would carry dangers for Yushchenko.

A ''grand coalition'' with Yanukovich's party could mean 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.

Reuters PDS VP0115

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