KIEV, Ukraine -- Loathed by many Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution that reversed his rigged presidential victory in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych appeared to engineer the unlikeliest of political comebacks yesterday, as voters disillusioned with Ukraine's pro-West leadership elected a new parliament.
Exit polls released late yesterday had Yanukovych's Party of Regions garnering the largest share of votes in a contest regarded as crucial to Ukraine's future. Recent constitutional changes transfer from the president to parliament the power to select a prime minister and much of the Cabinet.
Preliminary results were not expected to be released until today, but three independent exit polls gave Yanukovych's party between 27 percent and 33 percent of the vote, compared with 21 percent to 23 percent for Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc and 13 percent to 17 percent for President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.
Yanukovych declared victory last night. "Our victory will open a new page in the history of Ukraine," the former prime minister said. "We are ready to work together with any political party."
Yanukovych is staunchly pro-Kremlin, and his re-emergence as a potent force in Ukrainian politics could shift the country's foreign policy back toward Moscow and away from the pro-West course that Yushchenko has set.
Just how much renewed influence Yanukovych wields in Kiev will depend largely on alliances and coalitions reached in the next few days, as no party was expected to gain an outright majority in yesterday's election. Though Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are barely on speaking terms, each of their parties has flatly rejected the idea of a coalition with Yanukovych.
Instead, leaders from Tymoshenko and Yushchenko's parties have been quietly negotiating a new alliance that could give them enough votes to countervail Yanukovych's forces in parliament.
Casting his vote at a polling station across from the plaza that launched the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko said resurrecting the fractured orange team was a top priority: "The most important thing is the maximum engagement of democratic forces in forming a coalition."
In the 14 months since Yushchenko's inauguration, Ukrainians have become increasingly disappointed with his administration's performance. The country's GDP growth has slowed from 12 percent in 2004 to just 2 percent last year. Prices for staples such as meat and sugar have risen sharply.
Many Ukrainian businesses also fear the fallout from Yushchenko's battles this winter with Russia over natural-gas prices. The deal reached between the two countries' state-owned gas enterprises calls for the price of gas coming to Ukraine to double, to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Though Yushchenko has cushioned the price increase's impact on household users, Ukraine's natural gas-reliant metals and chemical industries -- as well as companies that buy supplies from those industries -- are expected to be hit hard by the price increase. Under the deal, prices could rise even more after six months.
Voters opting for Yanukovych's party yesterday pointed to his performance as prime minister under former President Leonid Kuchma, when Ukraine's economy was on an upswing.
"Yushchenko has led us into an economic crisis," said Mikhail Melnyk, a 72-year-old retired coal miner and Yanukovych supporter, after voting at a school in southwest Kiev. "A year ago, potatoes cost four times less than they cost now. When Yanukovych was prime minister, economic growth was 12 percent. When the orange team came into power, it dropped sharply. They're not professionals; they're just politicians."
Yanukovych seized the second chance handed to him, relying on the deep pockets of steel and coal tycoon Rinat Akhmetov to engineer a slick, no-holds-barred campaign that promised the economic prosperity the Orange Revolution couldn't deliver. Appearing Friday in Kiev's Podil neighborhood on a lavish soundstage better suited for a stadium rock concert, Yanukovych belittled the Orange Revolution as little more than "singing and dancing."
"Everything they said was just words," Yanukovych said. "They captured the power, but all they created was crisis. And people had to endure this crisis."
However, for many Ukrainians, Yanukovych remains synonymous with the corruption and oligarchic power that Orange Revolution leaders fought as they massed thousands into Independence Square in the fall and winter of 2004 to protest Yanukovych's fraudulent presidential win.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko teamed to lead those rallies, which eventually led to the Ukrainian Supreme Court's reversal of Yanukovych's victory. Yushchenko won the election rerun and was inaugurated In January 2005.
Since then, Yushchenko's dream team has fallen apart. He named Tymoshenko prime minister and then fired her in September as a corruption scandal forced the resignations of other top Yushchenko aides. Tymoshenko formed her own opposition movement with the aim of regaining the post of prime minister.
In an interview with foreign journalists last week, Tymoshenko said Yushchenko erred by allowing too many bureaucrats from Kuchma's regime to secure influential positions in his administration. As a result, Yushchenko's credibility with Ukrainians suffered.
"A month after the Orange Revolution, 70 percent of the people had trust in [the government]. Now it's just 15 percent. This is an eloquent fact," Tymoshenko said. "But it's not too late to get back to a situation when people trust in the revolution and in the cause of the government."
That trust would be irrevocably damaged, Tymoshenko said, if Yushchenko formed a coalition with Yanukovych for the sake of unification and stability. Experts have speculated that Yushchenko would begrudgingly abide by such an alliance.
But at least one leader of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, former Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, said a coalition with Yanukovych would be doomed.
"It's personal. I cannot see myself -- and everyone else in Our Ukraine would agree -- I cannot see myself with Yanukovych," Zvarych said.
Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.