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In Ukraine, a Survivor Ends Up on Top

After Enduring Firing, Poisoning and Fraud, Yushchenko to Take Helm Today

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A23

KIEV, Ukraine, Jan. 22 -- On Thursday night, Yevhen Chervonenko, the millionaire head of security for president-elect Viktor Yushchenko, went to see Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president of Ukraine, to discuss final details in the handover of power that will be completed with a Sunday inauguration ceremony in parliament.

The two men chatted amiably for 45 minutes, Chervonenko said in an interview. At one point, Chervonenko reminded Kuchma, the one-time head of a Soviet rocket factory, of a conversation they had in April 2001, immediately after Kuchma fired Yushchenko as prime minister.

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's president-elect, holds a golden mace that Cossacks from the country's south presented in a colorful ceremony in Kiev, the capital. His swearing-in today formally ends the bitter election drama of the past three months. (Sergei Chuzavkov -- AP)

"At that time I told him, 'He is the best rocket you have,' " Chervonenko said. " 'Mark my words, he will be back.' "

It was a bold prediction. Yushchenko was regarded as a highly capable technocrat who had laid the groundwork for the country's economic growth. He had experienced a surge of popularity as salaries and pensions were paid on time. But critics questioned his toughness, particularly his willingness to take on the ruthless intrigues of Ukrainian politics, where powerful business leaders known as oligarchs wield enormous influence.

But, nearly four years later, Yushchenko defeated Kuchma's hand-picked candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, by assembling an unlikely coalition of liberal reformers, socialists, Ukrainian nationalists, radical students and the country's weary urban middle class. He financed his campaign by lining up help from his own coterie of rich businessmen, including Chervonenko, who runs a large company.

After the presidential runoff vote on Nov. 21 was declared fraudulent by Ukraine's Supreme Court, Yushchenko, the loser in that election, galvanized an unexpected popular outcry that drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. He convinced the country's security services as well as the establishment he once served that his Orange Revolution, named for the official color of his campaign, could not be crushed without plunging the country into civil war. A new election was held Dec. 26, and Yushchenko won handily.

Through it all, he survived a poisoning that wrecked his Hollywood looks and turned his face into a blotch of scars. He calls the poisoning an assassination attempt.

He showed that beneath his image as a decent guy, there was, after all, an iron will.

"He was underestimated," said Vadim Karasev, head of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev, the capital.

On Sunday, the swearing-in of the West-leaning leader will be attended by world figures, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. On Saturday, President Bush telephoned Yushchenko and offered congratulations on "democracy's victory," according to a White House spokesman, Brian Besanceney.

"The two leaders also discussed their support for the people of Iraq and for democracy in that country," Besanceney said. "They agreed to consult and work closely together in the coming months." Ukraine has about 1,600 troops in Iraq and has announced plans to bring them home by the middle of 2005.

Yushchenko, 50, was born in a village in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, to a family of teachers.

He studied at the Ternopil Finance and Economics Institute in western Ukraine before becoming an accountant in the Carpathian Mountains region. There he took up walking and mountaineering, passions he continued to pursue until the poisoning in September. He remains a man of eclectic interests -- keeping bees, collecting antiques and painting, sculpting and working with wood.

In 1993, he began his ascent in public life when he became head of the National Bank, where he tamed the country's hyperinflation and stabilized the national currency, the hryvnia.

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