Yanukovych Leads Ukraine's Presidential Race

In the Ukraine's first presidential election since it's Orange Revolution five years ago, Viktor Yanukovych leads the polls. But in 2004, Yanukovych was the revolution's enemy, the Russia-backed candidate who won the tainted election and had his victory thrown out.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Five years ago, the Orange Revolution swept Ukraine's capital Kiev. Protestors overturned a rigged election and demanded free democracy. Today, the former Soviet republic holds its first presidential election since that revolution and there's a twist: The leader in the polls is Viktor Yanukovych. In 2004, he was the revolution's enemy, the Russian-backed candidate who won the tainted election and had his victory thrown out.

For more on what his comeback says about Ukraine, NPR's David Greene joins us. He's at a polling station in Kiev. David, first of all, what's the scene there?

DAVID GREENE: Well, it's a snowy day in Kiev, Liane, but people are going to the polls. And the real sense here seems to be they just hope that after a lot of elections that did not seem that fair, that this one will actually go smoothly and it will be fair, free and they have winner sometime soon. So that's the hope.

HANSEN: And tell us a little about the candidates. There are some familiar names from the Orange Revolution, including the man who became president who was also poisoned.

GREENE: Yeah, Viktor Yushchenko, you might remember, the president. He was poisoned mysteriously back in the Orange Revolution. He has lost popularity. He's been running in single digits here, Liane. His once ally-now-rival, the Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, she's been doing fairly well and has a chance. The real story though is, as you said, Viktor Yanukovych, the enemy of the Orange Revolution - he was backed by Russia in 2004 - he's made quite a comeback.

HANSEN: Well, David Greene, we're about to hear your story about where Viktor Yanukovych is getting his support, and it begins at a train station.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: When I got off the train in Donyet(ph), it reminded me a lot of Pittsburgh in an earlier time. Instead of steel here, it's coal - a gritty industrial city, tough work ethic.

(Soundbite of coal mine)

GREENE: I stopped at one coal mine and sat in a small, smoky room where some miners were on their break. An orange, metal coil was heating the room. Miners were smoking or checking out a Russian version of Maxim magazine. It was a tough crowd.

Mr. MIKHAIL SCRILNIK(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: One of the men, Mikhail Scrilnik said Westerners, including me, can't understand life in this hard part of Ukraine.

Mr. SCRILNIK: (Through translator) The correspondent from the West can't understand how we live, how when you go to doctor you have to give him money to get good treatment. You don't understand how you have to give money to someone at school or your kid will be mistreated.

GREENE: So there's a window into the disconnect people here feel with the West, and in that context came the Orange Revolution. The miners here said it was like people in Kiev had seen images of the West on TV and suddenly wanted to remake America in Ukraine. Well, life in Ukraine hasn't improved since then, these men told me.

Mr. RAMAN FUDOROV(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: And that reality is setting in, miner Raman Fudorov said. More Ukrainians are realizing that the man who fell from grace in the revolution is the one who actually understands how to fix things here.

Mr. FUDOROV: (Through translator) Yanukovych, of course, he's an industrialist. When he was prime minister, we can see some development and we had stability. When he had to resign, the Orange people came to power and all their promises went down the drain.

GREENE: Here in coal country, Russian language is spoken far more than Ukrainian. And there's a tendency to think of Eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian. But, really, people are proud they're independent, proud to be Ukrainian. There's no desire to return to the politics of the Soviet era. That said, bad economic times like these are when you do hear some nostalgia for the stability of life in Soviet times.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: Musicians were playing outside a chilly market in Donyet.

Mr. SERGEI CHICHAI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: One of them, Sergei Chichai, let his son have the stage so he could come chat. Chichai served in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the '80s and before that he was a coalminer.

Mr. CHICHAI: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: It was an old Soviet slogan, he told me, saying, coalminers were the guards of labor. They were respected and made solid wages. Now, he said, mines are neglected and unsafe. He said there'll be more deadly accidents.

Mr. CHICHAI: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Yanukovych, he said, is the candidate most in tune with coal's legacy here. As president he would help the mines. Chichai said people are excited about setting Orange Revolution aside. Just read the yard signs, he says. They say: Yanukovych, forgive us. In other words, forgive us for letting that revolution rob you of the presidency the first time.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: As he got back to work, I caught up with two women who were huddled on an icy street corner.

Ms. ALEXANDRA VASILUVNA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. ALLA GOLOSHGO(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: They spoke of lost jobs and struggles to buy food. Alexandra Vasiluvna is 76, and she's seen the pain at the machine plant in Donyet where she worked for 30 years.

Ms. VASILUNVNA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: In Soviet time, she said, it was better. You could make 100 rubles and that was plenty for bread and other food and the pensions were better.

Ms. GOLOSHGO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Her friend, Alla Goloshgo, added: We're just waiting for a better life to come from Yanukovych.

Ms. GOLOSHGO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: She then thanked me for visiting her part of Ukraine.

David Greene, NPR News.

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