KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, aiming to revive his own slim chances of re-election, accused his rivals of being part of a Russia-backed "coalition" that could doom Ukraine's pro-Europe aspirations.
Yushchenko's sharp attack on Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and his old adversary, Viktor Yanukovich, placed Ukraine's ties with its former Soviet master at the center of campaigning for the January 17 election.Relations with Russia, which supplies much of Ukraine's gas and keeps a naval base on the Black Sea, are critical to stability.But they have sharply deteriorated since the pro-Western 2004 "Orange revolution" brought Yushchenko to power. Moscow wants Ukraine back in its sphere of influence and to extend Russian business interests there.Tymoshenko and Yanukovich, a former prime minister who was the main loser in the 2004 protests, are frontrunners in the election which is expected to go to a second round on February 7.Yushchenko, loathed by the Kremlin because of his Ukrainian nationalist policies and pursuit of NATO membership, has only the faintest of chances, according to opinion polls.But he went on the offensive on Sunday, accusing Yanukovich and Tymoshenko, once his ally and now a fierce rival, of being part of the same "Moscow plot.""Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are the finest representatives of a single Kremlin coalition," local news agencies quoted him telling voters in the Lviv region of western Ukraine.Addressing the prospect of the two becoming a tandem in power after a February 7 decisive vote, Yushchenko said:"Irrespective of whether he is prime minister or she is president, or vice versa, the language will be one and the same."MOSCOW BACKINGMoscow's overt backing for the election of Yanukovich in a 2004 presidential poll that was ultimately judged to have been rigged helped fuel the street protests that caused his undoing.A re-run poll handed victory to the U.S.-supported Yushchenko, who was then backed by Tymoshenko.But, in the past five years, as Yushchenko has riled Moscow with policies aimed at taking Ukraine out of its orbit of influence, Tymoshenko has pursued a more pragmatic line.Tymoshenko has forged good personal relations with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and secured soft terms from Moscow for crucial supplies of natural gas.Analysts say Moscow favors Tymoshenko for the top job, though Putin has publicly denied that Moscow is taking sides.Yushchenko on Sunday accused Tymoshenko and Yanukovich of concocting gas agreements that met their personal ambitions but which could "lead Ukraine to energy and economic capitulation."This, he said, could mean that Russia would back away from an agreement to withdraw its Black Sea fleet from Crimea in 2017. "If Tymoshenko becomes president, the Russian fleet will be in Ukraine not until May 28 2017, but for ever," he said.This in turn would mean Ukraine stepping back from its policy of integration into the European mainstream, he said.HURTING TYMOSHENKOBoth Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have set an improvement of relations with Russia as one of their objectives, while at the same time pledging themselves to European integration.Yushchenko's comments appeared directed specifically at Tymoshenko's election bid. She, like he, has strong support in nationalist western regions, while Yanukovich's base in its Russian-speaking east and the south.Tymoshenko, in campaigning in Crimea on Sunday, set action to stamp out corruption among state employees as a priority."I sometimes even envy China where, to deal with corruption, they cut off hands and execute people. We of course as a European country can not use such methods even though our palms are sometimes itching to do so," she said.Yanukovich, speaking on Kiev radio and television, decried the past five years of "orange politics" which he said had consistently invented enemies to fight against."We have to unite to combat the (economic) crisis and poverty. Extreme poverty of millions of Ukrainian citizens -- this is the real enemy of Ukraine and we should not try to look for other enemies among ourselves," he said.