Andrew Osborn








'This is end of the Orange Revolution' Pro-Kremlin presidential front-runner tells The Sunday Telegraph of plans to turn Ukraine away from the West

The Sunday Telegraph, 7th February 2010 11:13


AS THE mercury plunged to -10C and the strains of martial music filled the freezing air, Viktor Yanukovych took to the outdoor stage.

"The hour of our victory is near,'' he boomed, as giant plasma screens projected his jowly features before a cheering crowd. "We have watched how our country has been destroyed for the past five years. Now it is payback time!''

Written off as a political corpse and a Kremlin flunkey only five years ago, the barrel-chested 59-year-old Mr Yanukovych is on the verge of staging a remarkable and unlikely comeback in today's election. Critics have likened the former electrician and member of the Soviet Communist party to the stilted Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

But that does not appear to be a problem for millions of Ukrainian voters. Failing a last-minute upset, he is on course to win the second and final round of Ukraine's presidential election today, beating the fiery and glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, into second place.

His win will reconfigure the geopolitical map of Europe, reversing the pro-Western path of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution and pushing it back into Moscow's sphere of influence.

"They say I've changed,'' he said, in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. "Everyone changes. I was too naïve. We study, we gain more experience, and we learn from our mistakes.''

A Russian-speaker with close ties to Moscow's ruling United Russia party, Mr Yanukovych is expected to prioritise a raft of policies that will mend Ukraine's fractious relations with its neighbour. He is also likely to give the Kremlin more say in the management of the country's strategically vital gas pipeline network that carries gas to Europe and heats millions of European homes.

His victory will mean that Ukraine, a giant country on the EU's eastern flank with almost 50 million people and a huge standing army, will drop its ambitions to join Nato and put its EU membership bid on the back burner.

Russia is savouring the moment. Anticipating his victory, it has already dispatched an ambassador to Ukraine after deliberately leaving the post vacant to show its displeasure with the country's pro-Western leadership.

For Mr Yanukovych, an orphan who grew up in crushing poverty and who did two stints in prison in his youth, it is a second chance he must have thought would never come.

Five years ago, he looked like a broken man. Back then, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against his fraud- tainted election victory. Those protests, dubbed the Orange Revolution after the party colours of its figurehead, Viktor Yushchenko, triggered a repeat election that Mr Yanukovych lost. It was a very public humiliation that saw him demonised as a bumbling Kremlin puppet and jailbird.

It was also a major embarrassment for Russia. Vladimir Putin, then the Russian president, had already publicly congratulated Mr Yanukovych on his victory and made it clear that the Kremlin was delighted it had a new ally. Mr Putin then watched with barely concealed anger as a court declared the win null and void.

Now, though, it seems the loss was only temporary. In the interview, Mr Yanukovych said rebuilding relations with Russia would be a priority. "We need mutually beneficial relations,'' he said, speaking at his characteristic snail's pace, picking his words carefully. He accused Mr Yushchenko, the outgoing president, of ruining relations with Russia.

"Good intergovernmental relations were not built. In fact they were destroyed. There was a long period when there were no bilateral meetings.

"Can you imagine it? Our trading relationship with Russia is worth $40 billion [ pounds 25 billion]. It is very important.''

Mr Yanukovych has said Ukraine under his leadership will join a Russian free trade zone and that Russian will be the second state language, with the same status as Ukrainian. He has also promised to consider recognising the pro-Russian Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Anna German, one of his closest advisers and an MP, agrees. "It is not in our interests to cut ourself off from Russia. We can be a bridge between Russia and the West. It is an important role.''

Mr Yanukovych hails from the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, known for its Soviet-era industry and coal mines, and has his core support there. He is less popular in western Ukraine, where people speak Ukrainian and equate Russia with the Soviet Union. Critics say he is bankrolled by a shadowy group of oligarchs, including Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

Somewhat plodding in manner, Mr Yanukovych casts himself as a straightforward politician who keeps his promises. With the help of American advisers, he has learnt to laugh at himself and own up to past errors. "The difference between someone who is smart and someone who is not is that the former does not repeat the same mistakes,'' he said.

Supporters insist he is unfairly maligned. "An enormous propaganda machine has been working to create an image of him as a monster,'' said Mrs German. "He had problems but he has overcome them. He has worked on himself.''

When asked whether he felt a sense of revenge, Mr Yanukovych did not blink. "I just want to work for the people and to restore order.''

His aides fawn over him often referring to him as simply "the leader''.

His political rival, Mrs Tymoshenko, says she does not trust him and suspects he is planning to falsify the vote. If he does, she has promised to rally the people, raising the spectre of a second Orange Revolution.

"Yanukovych is a dinosaur and his team Jurassic Park,'' said Hrihoriy Nemyria, a deputy prime minister and Tymoshenko ally. "If he wins we'll be trapped in a grey zone between Russia and the EU. He cannot turn the clock back completely but he can quite significantly.''