KIEV, Feb. 7 (New York Times) - The opposition leader Viktor F. Yanukovich declared victory on Sunday in presidential elections in Ukraine, claiming what appeared to be an unlikely comeback from his humiliating defeat in the 2004 Orange Revolution, when he was shunned as a bumbling Kremlin sidekick.
But his opponent, Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, an Orange leader with a reputation as a fierce political combatant, refused to concede and urged her supporters to wait for the final vote count, which was not expected until Monday. Six exit polls by Ukrainian television stations and other agencies found that Mr. Yanukovich had a narrow lead of 3 to 6 percentage points.
“I will do everything to ensure that citizens of Ukraine, no matter where in the country they live, feel comfortable and calm in a stable country,” Mr. Yanukovich said late Sunday at his campaign headquarters in Kiev.
If the count confirms the exit polls, it would amount to a rebuke of the Orange Revolution, which was supposed to serve as a post-Soviet model, moving the country toward a European-style democracy, but has instead given rise to political and economic turmoil.
A victory for Mr. Yanukovich would also be a triumph for Moscow in its struggle for influence with the West in the former Soviet Union.
While Mr. Yanukovich, with the assistance of an American political consultant, has tried to remake his image so that he is not considered a favorite of Russia, he advocates policies that it welcomes. The Kremlin has been infuriated by Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, saying that the West is infringing upon Moscow’s traditional zone of influence, and Mr. Yanukovich is vowing to abandon the plan.
Under the incumbent president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, an Orange leader and resolute Kremlin foe, relations with neighboring Russia grew so tense that the Kremlin withdrew its ambassador to Ukraine. Mr. Yushchenko lost his bid for another term in the first round of voting last month, his popularity hurt by the country’s hard times.
President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko were once Orange allies, but are now so estranged that he refused to endorse her and instead urged Ukrainians to vote “against all” on the ballot, a legal option.
The president’s attacks on her may have been a factor in Mr. Yanukovich’s strong showing. Exit polls showed that “against all” received roughly 6 percent of the votes.
With Ukraine’s economy suffering and its Orange government paralyzed by squabbling, many people seemed to vote on Sunday with little of the enthusiasm that they did five years ago. Both Mr. Yanukovich, a former prime minister, and Ms. Tymoshenko are familiar figures who during the campaign rehashed well-worn themes.
Mr. Yanukovich said Ms. Tymoshenko was untrustworthy and was responsible for Ukraine’s troubles because of her erratic management. Ms. Tymoshenko said Mr. Yanukovich was a buffoon who would be controlled by Ukrainian oligarchs and the Kremlin. Her supporters noted that he had a criminal conviction for robbery as a youth.
The question now is what Ms. Tymoshenko will do next. She had contended last week that Mr. Yanukovich’s campaign intended to steal the election, saying that she would call for mass protests in response, in a repeat of the Orange Revolution. If Mr. Yanukovich wins by the slim margin suggested by the exit polls, she could still contest the election.
“It is too early to draw conclusions,” Ms. Tymoshenko said at a news conference after the polls closed. “Everything will depend on how our team defends the results. I ask everyone to fight for every result, every document, every vote, because a vote can decide our fate.”
The first round of voting last month occurred without major violations, international election monitors said, and if they report on Monday that Sunday’s balloting was also relatively proper, it might be difficult for Ms. Tymoshenko to rally her supporters. Analysts said Ukrainians are so disillusioned that it is unlikely that there will be demonstration like those in 2004.
If she loses the presidency, Ms. Tymoshenko would remain prime minister and be able disrupt Mr. Yanukovich’s agenda until he could put together a coalition in parliament to dismiss her. He would also call new parliamentary elections.
The results on Sunday appeared to reflect the geographic divide in Ukraine, with Ukrainian speakers in the west backing Ms. Tymoshenko and Russian speakers in the east going for Mr. Yanukovich.