Ukraine PM enters prez race

KIEV: Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party nominated her on Saturday as its candidate to fight upcoming presidential elections, at Kiev rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters.

Amid chants of "Yulia, Yulia!", the Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) unanimously approved her bid for the January 17 vote at the late evening meeting at Independence Square in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

It was on the same square in 2004 that Tymoshenko led mass protests claiming ballot fraud in the last presidential elections that forced a re-run and the triumph of pro-Western forces in the so-called Orange Revolution.

"The decision has been unanimously adopted," leading party member and top Tymoshenko lieutenant Olexander Turchinov declared to thunderous cheers from the crowd, who waved Ukrainian flags with the party's red heart symbol.

Tymoshenko -- wearing a white dress embroidered with traditional patterns in a customary nod to Ukrainian folk traditions -- thanked her supporters and called on them to "pray for Ukraine."

In the January 17 elections, her biggest rival is set to be the defeated candidate from five years ago, Viktor Yanukovich, who is seen as being more strongly in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

"My country counts more for me than my life," said Tymoshenko in a typically impassioned speech, pledging to ensure that salaries and pensions were paid on time by the state.

"We do not have the right to be in confrontation with our neighbours. Our relations with Russia must be equal and worthy," Tymoshenko told the rally, while adding that Ukraine's path was towards the European Union.

In a clear attack on Yanukovich, she added: "Today the old teams want revenge. They want to return to power."

She accused current president and her former Orange Revolution ally Viktor Yushchenko of weakness and "not protecting the country in the way we expected of him."

"Men are lazy, we want to have a woman as our head of state," said Galyna Terliuk, a Kiev pensioner.

Yanukovich's Regions Party, which draws strength from the Russian-speaking east of the country, on Friday confirmed him as its candidate for the vote in a more modest congress at a Kiev exhibition centre.

Tymoshenko has traditionally been most popular in the Ukrainian-speaking West of the country and seen as a champion of closer integration with the European Union.

But the picture has grown more complex in recent years with Yanukovich seeking to abandon his image as a servant of Moscow and Tymoshenko making no secret of her strong relations with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Orange Revolution sparked hope that Ukraine would realize its full potential as a political and economic power.

But the country became stuck in a political impasse when Tymoshenko fell out spectacularly with pro-Western Yushchenko after her appointment as prime minister.

The economic crisis hit Ukraine harder than any other ex-Soviet state as its heavy industry saw its export markets slump. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 15 percent this year.

Tymoshenko's popularity took a major dent with the economic crisis and she is trailing Yanukovich by up to 10 percent in opinion polls. Analysts believe still she has the ability to turn the election round in a second round run-off.

Born in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, Tymoshenko is believed to have made a fortune in the gas industry in the 1990s which earned her the status of a leading oligarchs and the nickname the "gas princess".

Briefly imprisoned in 2001 on fraud charges that were later thrown out, Tymoshenko went on to reinvent herself as liberal politician championing rights under the regime of former president Leonid Kuchma.

She ditched her tumbling locks and instead adopted a traditional knotted hair braid that became her new trademark and a symbol of her avowed commitment to Ukrainian independence.