LUHANSK, Ukraine -- Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko pledged to pull Ukraine further toward Europe by cleaning up corruption and bringing order to the country if she wins the presidential election early next year.
Campaigning in the country's industrial east, which traditionally favors front-runner Viktor Yanukovych, Ms. Tymoshenko said in an interview that voters have a stark choice between a European future and a corrupt past, embodied by her chief rival.She said he is a political relic who represents "very powerful criminal groups" and accused him of working with President Viktor Yushchenko to derail her presidential bid by undermining the economy.Mr. Yanukovych, in an earlier interview, accused Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yushchenko of their own corruption and fueling "chaos" through ineffective leadership.Ms. Tymoshenko is using fiery rhetoric in an attempt to attract voters disappointed by the country's lack of progress in eradicating corruption and prosperity after gaining independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union split.Eighteen candidates are vying for the presidency in the Jan. 17 election, and none will likely get more than 50% of the vote, setting the stage for a runoff between the two leading candidates in February.The France-sized country of 45 million was set on a democratic path in 2004 when street protests, known as the Orange Revolution, overturned a presidential election fraught with allegations that it was rigged and brought Mr. Yushchenko to power. But domestic political and economic changes foundered amid bitter infighting between Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko, his ally during the revolution.In the most recent polls carried out by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems this month, Mr. Yanukovych led with 31%, followed by Ms. Tymoshenko's 19%. No other candidate had more than 5% support. However, she is expected to pick up more votes from other candidates than Mr. Yanukovych in the runoff, which political observers expect to be tight.Now in her second stint as prime minister after being fired by Mr. Yushchenko less than a year after the Orange Revolution, Ms. Tymoshenko blamed the president for the failure to push through economic changes and combat corruption, calling him a "very weak president, who is unable and unwilling to fight the lawlessness he declared war against."Ukraine was hit hard in the fall of 2008, when demand for its major steel and chemical exports plunged. The International Monetary Fund stepped in quickly with a $16.4 billion loan, which has helped prop up an economy that has contracted 15% this year. The IMF cut off funding last month, though, after a rise in social spending that was supported by Mr. Yanukovych's political party and signed off on by the president.Ukraine Finance Minister Ihor Umanskiy said Wednesday that he doesn't expect the scheduled $3.8 billion installment to be disbursed until next year.In combative campaign speeches, Ms. Tymoshenko has slammed political opponents and corrupt officials for exacerbating the country's economic woes for their own benefit. She vowed in the interview to bring order to the country by establishing "dictatorship of the law" where "no crime would go unpunished.""Tymoshenko is campaigning in Bolshevik style by finding enemies to fight against," said Yevhen Bystrytskiy, executive director of the Kiev-based International Renaissance Foundation, a democracy-promoting think tank. "Instead of talking about other candidates, she should present a platform of systemic reforms."Ms. Tymoshenko's campaign has portrayed attacks on her as also being directed against the country."She plays on the idea that she is a fragile woman on the one hand, and she is the only real man in the country on the other," said Oleh Rybachuk, who worked for Mr. Yushchenko as chief of staff and served in Ms. Tymoshenko's government as deputy prime minister.Ms. Tymoshenko said she would "build Europe in Ukraine" to pursue integration into the EU. She called for "pragmatic" relations with Russia, while urging Moscow to "respect" its neighbor.Mr. Yushchenko accuses Ms. Tymoshenko of betraying Ukrainian interests in dealings with Russia, particularly in agreements to buy Russian natural gas. Ms. Tymoshenko has developed a strong relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has described working with Ms. Tymoshenko as "comfortable."Ms. Tymoshenko is cooler on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization than the current president, who has irritated Russia with calls for membership in a bloc the Kremlin views as hostile. She calls for continued cooperation, but stresses the lack of support among Ukrainians for membership, talking instead of a pan-European security pact.Mr. Yanukovych has also softened the pro-Russian message that failed to bring him victory in 2004, promising to foster closer ties with the European Union while strengthening relations with Russia that have become strained under Mr. Yushchenko.But observers say both front-runners will struggle to make significant progress toward Europe, which would necessitate more transparency in politics and business."They both see Ukraine as part of Europe, so it's not so much about the direction, but the speed," said Mr. Rybachuk. "We have a train going toward Europe, but the speed at which we are going is clearly not fast-track with either."