Ukraine votes in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, January 17th. 

Ukraine does not permit the release of polling data in the two weeks prior to the contest.  But I have obtained reliable polling data from colleagues, based on polling conducted last week for internal use by campaign officials, which suggests that Viktor Yanukovych leads incumbent Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by 8 to 10 percent, a narrowing from two weeks ago, when Yanuokvych led by 12 to 15 percent:

Yanukovych 34.0
Tymoshenko 24.5
Tyhypko 12.5
Yatseniuk 6.5
Yushchenko 5.5
Symonenko 4.0
Lytvyn 3.5
Tyahnybok 2.0
Hrytsenko 1.0
Others and Against Everyone 6.5

This is not so much a surge in support for Tymoshenko as the growing strength of Serhiy Tyhypko, a multi-millionaire banker, who is gaining strength primarily in Central, Southern and Eastern Ukraine, largely at Yanukovych’s expense. If polls are to be believed, Tyhypko will win well over 10 percent and emerge as an important new force in Ukrainian politics. 

Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, the vastly unpopular hero of the Orange revolution of 2004,  will struggle to reach 5 percent support and may finish as low as 5th.

There will likely be a second round with Yanukovych and Tymoshenko squaring off. 

Russia’s media are presenting the support for Yanukovych as a repudiation of Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic path. But that is far from the truth. While Yanukovych will seek to reduce Ukraine-Russia tensions, he and the oligarchs who back him seek a strong, sovereign Ukraine and will pursue a path toward European integration. Indeed, if elected, Yanukovych is likely to challenge Russia to revise the terms of the current gas deal, which he believes is harmful to Ukraine’s interests.

While NATO membership will be placed on the back burner by the next likely president, all major candidates will work to defend and strengthen Ukraine’s sovereignty and build strong relations with the US and Europe.

The biggest challenge for the next president will be dealing with a mounting state budget deficit amid a long-term economic recession, with GDP down nearly 15 percent in 2009.

This will require a pragmatic normalization of relations with Russia, and deeper cooperation with the US, the EU, and the IMF.

Adrian Karatnycky, an Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow, is Managing Partner at the Myrmidon Group LLC and co-director and co-founder of the Ukrainian-Jewish encounter. 

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