KIYV, Ukraine - Viktor Yanukovich, prime minister of this strategically important nation wedged between Russia and the West, has undergone one of the most extreme makeovers in global politics.
Just two years ago, the Russian - backed machine politician was a pariah in the West after he claimed victory in the 2004 presidential elections, which were marred by fraud and a brutal poisoning that left his opponent disfigured. Only the subsequent mass street protests of the so-called Orange Revolution forced him to accept a redo of the vote, which he lost.
Today, Mr. Yanukovich, 56 years old, is locked once more in a struggle for supremacy with the pro-Western Orange leader who beat him, President Viktor Yushchenko. But this time, the thousands of protesters occupying Kiev's Independence Square for the past month flew not orange, but the blue colors of Mr. Yanukovich's Party of the Regions, and the red and hot pink of his allies, the Communists and Socialists. They dispersed only when Mr. Yanukovich defused the crisis by agreeing to hold new elections - for the second time in as many years - after his rival dissolved parliament.
With backing from a billionaire metals baron and political coaching from U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's former campaign strategist, Mr. Yanukovich was re-elected as prime minister last year. He has positioned himself as a champion of rule of law and democratic values, a visitor to Washington, Brussels and Davos, as well as Moscow.
Mr. Yanukovich's comeback is further evidence - on top of the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Kyrgyzstan - that the free elections encouraged by the U.S. don't guarantee winners who favor U.S. goals, or even Western-style democracy. Ukraine is adding a fresh twist to the lesson, as Mr. Yanukovich adopts the language and institutions of democracy to shed the anti-Western and antidemocratic image that cost him the election 2½ years ago.
Gone is Mr. Yanukovich's bouffant hairdo, a favorite of Soviet apparatchiks. So too are the Russian advisers and televised meetings with President Vladimir Putin that characterized his 2004 election campaign, though the Russian lower house of parliament, or Duma, has issued two statements supporting him in the current power struggle. He says he wants to be the Ukrainian leader who starts membership talks with the European Union. He even polished his Ukrainian, which he now speaks in public instead of his first language, Russian.
"Time changes people, even Viktor Feodorovich Yanukovich," said Mr. Yushchenko, 53, in an interview. "But the test is in his decisions and actions," he added, accusing Mr. Yanukovich of trying to "usurp" power. Mr. Yanukovich declined to be interviewed for this story.
How far his makeover goes has implications far beyond Ukraine. This nation of 48 million is split by history and language, and remains divided over whether to embrace the West or Russia. Ukraine transports 80% of Russian natural-gas exports to the European Union, and is key to the energy security of the EU's $15 trillion economy. Moscow, increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive with its neighbors, sees Ukraine as vital to its own security, economic interests and regional influence.
Historically, eastern Ukraine - Mr. Yanukovich's power base - is closely linked to Russia, and most people in the region are native Russian speakers. President Yushchenko is stronger in predominantly Ukrainian - speaking central and western Ukraine, which tilts toward Western Europe.
The current crisis began on April 2, when President Yushchenko dissolved Ukraine's parliament, or Rada, and called for early elections. He accused his old rival of engineering a creeping coup by coaxing legislators to defect from other parties to give Mr. Yanukovich the votes he needs to change the constitution. After a monthlong struggle for power in which Mr. Yushchenko fired three judges, Prime Minister Yanukovich earlier this month agreed to new elections. But the two men left it to parliament to negotiate a date, and last week Mr. Yushchenko said he would impose a date if none was settled soon, threatening a further showdown.
Opinion polls suggest the Party of the Regions will get the most votes, as it did last year. Yet Mr. Yushchenko's tough action in dissolving parliament and seizing back power is expected to bring some disillusioned Orange voters back to the fold, making the contest tight.
Both Viktors claim the legal high ground, but the moral clarity of the Orange Revolution era has dissipated. "I'm absolutely disappointed in the way things have turned out," said Vitaly Kutovenko, a 28-year-old banker, as he sipped a beer in the food court of the glitzy Globus mall beneath Independence Square, where Mr. Yanukovich's supporters were protesting. "Most people are."
Many Ukrainians were euphoric after the Orange Revolution and hoped it would end the corrupt autocracy that had ruled the country since it became independent of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Then-president Leonid Kuchma and his entourage of business "clans" had carved up the proceeds of privatization between them. When Mr. Yanukovich in November 2004 claimed victory in presidential elections later ruled fraudulent, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets of Kiev, setting up camps of pup tents to protest in below-freezing temperatures.
Mr. Kuchma and his anointed candidate, Mr. Yanukovich, agreed to fresh elections, provided the constitution was changed to transfer some of the president's powers to parliament.
The shock of losing the rerun elections, which were held in December 2004, hit Mr. Yanukovich hard, according to advisers and friends. He found himself in opposition for the first time in his political career and has said his children had to flee the country to escape harassment. In the past, Ukrainians in opposition had suffered media blackouts, arbitrary prosecution, a suspiciously high rate of fatal accidents, one murder by decapitation and, in Mr. Yushchenko's case, dioxin poisoning.
That poisoning turned Mr. Yushchenko's face into a mask of pustules and made him sick. In the interview, he said the effects of the poisoning reached their peak at the beginning of 2006 and required constant treatment. That was a full year after he took office as president, a lost period in which economic growth collapsed as the Orange leaders fought among themselves.
Energy and Ruthlessness
Mr. Yushchenko, now revived and showing a new energy and ruthlessness, said he knows who poisoned him, though he won't name names. He said he expects prosecutors to bring charges soon.
Mr. Yanukovich, for his part, says a year in opposition - he published a book with that title -- taught him the value of a free press and tolerant democracy. "He really took it deep into his conscience that he needs to understand what happened [in the Orange Revolution], and what should be changed in his own mentality," said Konstantin Gryshchenko, a former Ukrainian foreign minister and now a foreign-affairs adviser to Mr. Yanukovich.
It isn't the first time the former engineer has reinvented himself. Growing up near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Yanukovich lost his mother at a young age and was brought up by his grandmother. He ran wild and landed in jail twice for assault convictions in his late teens.
Out of jail, Mr. Yanukovich was taken under the wing of former Soviet astronaut Georgi Beregovoi. He began a rapid rise in the tough world of post-Soviet politics, becoming governor of the Donetsk region in 1997 and prime minister in 2002, before the Orange Revolution cut him short.
Yet he was by no means washed up politically after his electoral defeat. His rock-solid support in the east won him 44% of the vote in the 2004 presidential election. Things brightened dramatically for him in September 2005, after the president fired his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, breaking up the Orange coalition.
As Mr. Yanukovich prepared for parliamentary elections due the following spring, one of his key backers -- Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire metals magnate from Donetsk -- recommended he hire Paul Manafort, who had worked on then-Sen. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Mr. Manafort, now a prominent Washington lobbyist, had been advising Mr. Akhmetov as he explored taking his business, SCM Holdings, public on Western financial markets.
With another election fast approaching, Mr. Manafort declined in an interview to talk about the specifics of the campaign advice he gave Mr. Yanukovich. But according to people involved in the Party of the Regions' campaign in spring 2006, Mr. Manafort advised on such basics as how to target and appeal to voters. He also produced a slick campaign film and coached Mr. Yanukovich on his presentation.
"This is a person who is now his own man for his own time," said Mr. Manafort, noting that in 2004 Mr. Yanukovich served under an all-powerful president, Mr. Kuchma, and had limited latitude. "His vision is to have a relationship with Ukraine's historic neighbors, while integrating with the West over the longer term. Like Nixon to China, he's the only national leader who can do that."
The makeover has affected more than Mr. Yanukovich's campaign style. Ambassadors in Kiev say that during his previous stint as prime minister, he shied away from contact with foreign diplomats and the media. Now he invites briefings and questions, speaking Ukrainian even when addressed in Russian. He pushed through legislation to take Ukraine into the World Trade Organization, and has promised to pursue a free-trade agreement with the European Union.
In one example of his new openness, he invited eight local journalists to his home this past March. He talked about how he used to race cars until 1999 -- his favorite was a three-liter Ford Escort -- and about meeting his wife when she dropped a brick on her foot making deliveries to a factory. They even discussed his two spells in jail, a taboo subject the media were once banned from discussing.
"We were wrong not to talk about that," said Hanna Herman, Mr. Yanukovich's communications chief. "He didn't go to jail because he was a terrible criminal, but because he was a young kid on the street with no parents."
Yet some things abut the prime minister may not have changed. A report released last month by the Council of Europe, the Continent's human-rights watchdog, noted growing complaints of arbitrary police raids and harassment of journalists since Mr. Yanukovich's coalition government took power. It also noted the reinstatement of discredited old-regime officials, such as the head of the Central Election Commission, who oversaw and approved the fraudulent 2004 presidential vote. Mr. Yanukovich didn't address the report's criticisms, but praised the resolution to which the report was attached, which called for Ukraine's constitutional court to decide whether Mr. Yushchenko's dissolution of parliament was legal.
Initially, Mr. Yanukovich didn't have enough allies to form a government after last spring's elections, when the Party of the Regions became the largest in Parliament. But as the Orange faction squabbled, a key coalition member, the Socialist Party, defected. Orange politicians have alleged Mr. Yanukovich's backers paid the Socialists $300 million to switch sides. Both he and the Socialists say no money changed hands.
After taking office last August, Mr. Yanukovich began to tussle with the president over important powers that weren't transferred under the 2004 deal. He quickly reversed Mr. Yushchenko's policy on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, halting Ukraine's efforts to join the Western military alliance. In January, he pushed through a law stripping the president of his right to appoint the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister, as well as regional governors.
For Mr. Yushchenko, the last straw came in March, when 21 legislators defected to Mr. Yanukovich from the president's Our Ukraine party and Ms. Tymoshenko's bloc. Many were businessmen, in a political system where all parties sell parliamentary seats to businessmen who want protection and access to the sale of state assets. The new blood brought Mr. Yanukovich closer to the 301 votes he needs in the 450-seat parliament to override presidential vetoes or amend the constitution.
Accepting the defectors "was a mistake," says Taras Chornovil, a legislator who ran Mr. Yanukovich's doomed campaign for the 2004 presidential rerun, and whose father - an opposition leader - died in a suspicious car crash in 1999. "We should have known how Yushchenko would react," he said.
Mr. Yushchenko dissolved parliament, alleging that the defectors were bribed, and re-formed the Orange coalition with Ms. Tymoshenko. Mr. Yanukovich declared the move illegal and called thousands of supporters into the streets.
Most of the protesters have since gone home, but in their echoes of the Orange protests, they helped Mr. Yanukovich's makeover. The Party of the Regions was "deeply wounded when the people threw them out" and needed to have its own version of the Orange Revolution, said Vladislav Kaskiv, leader of the PORA youth movement, which played a central role in the 2004 protests. He's heartened that people like Mr. Yanukovich now feel the need to pursue politics in public, rather than in the dark as before 2004.
"My mistake was thinking the Orange Revolution could sweep out all these business clans at once," said Mr. Kaskiv. "I was wrong. It's going to be an evolution."