KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's youngest leading presidential hopeful says he flies economy class, vows not to take advice from either Moscow or Washington and promises to fight corruption with "a truncheon in my hands."
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a 35-year-old millionaire banker, is trailing in third place in opinion polls ahead of Ukraine's January 17 presidential contest, which kicked off Monday.But he told The Associated Press in an interview that he believes he can win because the public is fed up with official corruption and a government polarized by infighting."They are taking the country for idiots," he said of the current political leaders.Bristling with energy and sarcastic humor, Yatsenyuk positions himself as a new-generation reformer who will break with Ukraine's Soviet past while building better relations with both Moscow and the West.A recent opinion poll showed Yatsenyuk garnering just 9 percent support, behind former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych who had 30 percent and enjoyed the open support of Moscow when he ran for president five years ago.Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko, heroine of the Orange Revolution, the 2004 street protests that ushered in a pro-Western government, was second with 19 percent in the October poll by Research and Branding group.The study surveyed 3,119 people nationwide with a margin of error of 2.2 percent. President Viktor Yushchenko, who is running for a second term, has 3 percent support.But both Washington and Moscow seem to recognize Yatsenyuk as a rising political star.Russia's state-controlled media has given Yatsenyuk extensive coverage. Meanwhile U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with him, as well as Yanukovych and Tymoshenko, during a July trip to Kiev, in what was seen as an effort to size up potential future presidents of Ukraine."The support that Yatsenyuk has suggests that there are people looking for an alternative," said Alex Brideau, a Ukraine analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that advises on geopolitical risks.Yatsenyuk portrays himself as more independent than the leading candidates. "I don't need dictation either from Washington, Brussels or the Kremlin," said Yatsenyuk, a former central banker, foreign minister and speaker of parliament. "We don't want to be a middleman, we want to be a player."In a shot at his former mentor, Yushchenko, Yatsenyuk says he will stop "begging" to be invited to join NATO and the European Union. Instead, he would strengthen trade ties with the EU while continuing the current level of cooperation with the Western military alliance.Yatsenyuk also wants good relations with Moscow, proposing cooperation in energy and agriculture.He painted Ukraine as an essential ally and trading partner for Moscow, saying that given the current global financial crisis, Russia needs to maintain its ties with its neighbor or face its economy being dominated by Beijing.If Russia turns down trade cooperation with countries such as Ukraine, "in 10 years they will have everything 'made in China,'" he said.Yatsenyuk has avoided taking sides on bitterly divisive topics, such as the country's painful history under the Soviet Union. Some political analysts therefore see him as an unknown quantity."We don't see a clear political face, we still don't have answers to many questions, his ideology is still unclear," said analyst Oleksiy Haran.A lawyer by training, Yatsenyuk was a first-year college student in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi when he set up a law firm helping transfer state companies into private hands.That eventually landed him a job as a top manager at a leading Kiev bank. He went on to become Ukraine's economic minister, then foreign minister and finally speaker of parliament.He resigned from that post last year to form his own political movement, Front of Change.He promises action in a country long gripped by political paralysis."I will not succeed without a truncheon in my hands," he told voters in western Ukraine on a recent campaign trip. "Unless about a dozen (officials) are put in jail in Ukraine, so that millions would see that violating the law leads to punishment, there will be no order in the state."Yatsenyuk says his campaign contributions come from small businessmen, denying allegations that he has received heavy support from Ukraine's notorious oligarchs.He acknowledged, though, that a foundation he runs promoting the rights of the disabled has been supported by Viktor Pinchuk, a billionaire steel magnate and political power broker.