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Viktor Yanukovych completes his metamorphosis

Five years after his Orange Revolution defeat, Yanukovych won a democratic election for Ukrainian president.

Viktor Yanukovych greets his supporters during a pre-election concert in Kiev on Feb. 5, 2010. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Viktor Yanukovych, the ursine eastern Ukrainian party boss who suffered a humiliating defeat five years ago, has triumphed in a presidential election on Sunday that was surprising not so much for its outcome as for its cleanliness. 

After a brutal and bruising campaign during which both sides hurled accusations of corruption, incompetence and outright lying at each other, Yanukovych held a slim margin over his challenger, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 48.8 percent to 45.6. (Some 4.3 percent of voters exercised a purely Ukrainian option and voted "against everyone.") 

It marked a breathtaking comeback — as well as a metamorphosis — for a man who it seemed would be forever labeled as the loser of the Orange Revolution. 

The last time Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a leader, to succeed outgoing President Leonid Kuchma in 2004, Yanukovych was the officially anointed heir apparent. Moscow also heavily supported his candidacy, and the contest at first followed a familiar path of official ballot-stuffing and fraud to make sure Yanukovych won. But then hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the post-Soviet politics-as-usual and in support of his competitor, Viktor Yushchenko. The first results were annulled, and Yanukovych lost after a re-vote was held. It appeared that he had been relegated to the trash heap of history. 

Fast forward five years. Yanukovych is not only the winner, but he has a process that international observers called an "impressive display of democratic elections" to thank for it. 

"For everyone in Ukraine, this election was a victory," said Joao Soares of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Yanukovych declared victory on Sunday before the first results had come in and exit polls were placing the spread between he and Tymoshenko at between 3 and 5 percent. But his victory was not exactly a shocker. After winning a first round of voting by 10 percentage points — but lacking the 50 percent needed to win outright — Yanukovych was considered the clear frontrunner. 

Nevertheless a win in the second round was far from certain. Tymoshenko is a relentless fighter. What's more, Yanukovych is viewed as an embarrassment by many Ukrainians. Although less the wooden ex-Soviet apparatchik of five years ago, he is still awkward and slow in speech, and seems to manage only slightly better in Russian than in Ukrainian (which he mastered only in recent years). According to a favorite story making the rounds, he once said that the Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov was a "great Ukrainian poet."