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Will Ukraine's east sway election?

Yulia Tymoshenko must improve her standing in Dnipropetrovsk to beat Viktor Yanukovych.

A metropolis of just over 1 million inhabitants, Dnipropetrovsk prides itself on two things: the Yuzhmash factory and design bureau, which produced the engines that drove the Soviet Union’s rockets and missiles, and political luminaries like communist leader Leonid Brezhnev and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. 

The Dnipropetrovsk region is also the country’s second largest electoral district — larger than some of Ukraine’s western constituencies put together. The fact that Tymoshenko began her multi-million dollar business and political career here has not helped her in the polls, however: She is seen now as an outsider, more affiliated with Kiev and the country’s nationalist west than the Russian-speaking (though ethnically Ukrainian) east. What’s more, she is perceived as having promised much, but delivered little to the city and region. 

“Yulia Tymoshenko has very deeply insulted the people of Dnipropetrovsk,” said Yuriy Raikhel, a local journalist and commentator, citing her promises (and failure) to finance a subway and bring the Euro 2012 soccer championships to the city. 

The golden-braided prime minister therefore needs every vote she can muster — most likely by siphoning off Tigipko’s and Yatsenyuk’s former supporters. Tymoshenko, in recognition of Dnipropetrovsk’s importance — and her own weak standing there — traveled to the city for a live question-and-answer broadcast, and a meeting with local business leaders. Speaking forcefully — her hands at times cutting the air decisively, other times reaching out in a seeming gesture of supplication — she fielded questions for more that two hours. But even her own strategists think she is facing an uphill battle. 

“Opinion polls show that Tigipko’s votes will be split evenly between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych,” said Vasiliy Stoyakin, a public relations and political expert who is working with Tymoshenko’s campaign. 

“Tymoshenko trails Yanukovych by 7 to 1.5 percent,” he added. “Not one prognosis sees her catching up and overtaking him.” 

Nevertheless, a large number of Tigipko voters said they would vote for the prime minister in the second round, if only to keep Yanukovych — who was sentenced twice in his youth and is known for his linguistic struggles in both the Russian and Ukrainian — from taking office. (His convictions were later struck from the record it's not clear what they were for.) 

“I’ll never vote for Yanukovych — he is a twice-convicted, uneducated bandit,” said Anya Gurina, a Dnipropetrovsk student. 

Back in Kiev, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko held competing final rallies Friday evening, just a couple of hundred yards from each other in front of two of the city’s main cathedrals. Tymoshenko’s gathering was called a “Prayer for Ukraine” and bore a solemn, almost funereal air. In contrast, Yanukovych’s was festive, with Ukrainian rap groups almost drowning out the rival meeting across the way. 

“The Orange era is ending,” Yanukovych said to cheers. 

But a top European official at the same time sounded a note of warning: “If the elections are not free and fair — and the period after the elections as well — then there will be a problem with Ukraine’s ‘open door’ to Europe,” said Pawel Kowal, the head European Parliament election observation mission and delegation for relations with Ukraine, referring to the country’s ongoing negotiations for EU admission.