A wealthy businessman has made surprising gains against the two front-runners in Ukraine's presidential race, riding a wave of popular discontent with the nation's leaders.
Sergei Tigipko, 49, former economy minister, is being bolstered by a last-minute media blitz and anger toward Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the country's deadlocked government.
A second-place finish in Sunday's presidential vote could put Tigipko into a runoff against former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, his former boss.
That would represent a shutout for the leaders of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution — Tymoshenko and current President Viktor Yushchenko — who promised but so far have not managed to deliver sweeping democratic reforms. Yushchenko is running for re-election but is far back in the polls.
Tigipko said he has already spent about $11 million on the campaign, bolstering the image he has tried to project of an independent candidate not beholden to any of Ukraine's political or business factions.
An opinion poll released Wednesday by a Russian state-run polling agency, VTsIOM, put Tigipko slightly ahead of Tymoshenko with 14.4 percent support against her 13.9 percent. Yanukovych was far ahead with 30.5 percent in the poll, which was conducted Jan. 3-10 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Tigipko's popularity began to surge after the amateur bodybuilder appeared on the December cover of Men's Health magazine in Ukraine wearing a tight T-shirt and jeans. He followed this up with appearances on TV talk shows and a huge advertising campaign that covered the Ukrainian capital with his billboards.
At a press conference Wednesday, Tigipko sought a middle ground between Yanukovych's pro-Russian platform and Tymoshenko's traditional focus on Ukrainian nationalism and European integration.
He said Ukraine was not yet ready to seek membership in the European Union or NATO and must first focus on forming a unified government that can stimulate the country's flagging economy. In the long term, however, he said Ukraine must move toward European integration.
Tigipko also said he would seek to repair damaged relations with Russia.
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