By Richard Balmforth
Ukraine's opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, who lost the 2004 "Orange Revolution" election, predicted on Thursday he would win the presidency in January and said he would make improving ties with Russia a priority.
Buoyed by a pledge of support from one of Ukraine's richest men for his campaign for the January 17 election, Yanukovich said he and his Regions Party would end economic "chaos" and bring greater stability to push through reform.
"We have faith in the wisdom of the Ukrainian nation and we will win. The question is only whether (we will win) in the first round or the second," Yanukovich told a news conference.
Russia accused Kiev of trying to seize property belonging to its fleet at the southern port of Sevastopol on Thursday, in a typical incident that reflects rising tensions ahead of the election.
Yanukovich was the Moscow-backed candidate in a 2004 election battle with President Viktor Yushchenko which triggered mass protests and a pro-Western policy shift. He has about 25 percent support in opinion polls.
His main rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has about 15 percent. Support for Yushchenko, who beat Yanukovich in a re-run vote in 2004, is down in single digits.
Relations with Russia, which supplies most of Ukraine's gas and maintains a naval base on the Black Sea, are critical to stability. Moscow wants Ukraine back in its sphere of influence and to extend Russian business interests there.
"The task is how to re-establish relations with Russia based on equal partnership," Yanukovich said. "We have to radically change relations with Russia. There is a will for this in the Ukrainian people."
But he avoided details on how he would revamp relations or handle recurring disputes over gas supplies. Both issues require sensitive treatment in Ukraine, which is divided into nationalist western regions and its Russian-speaking east.
Yushchenko's determination to secure NATO membership for his country has been a major source of irritation for Russia and has found limited broad support inside Ukraine itself.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has written off relations with Yushchenko, accusing him of pursuing anti-Russian policies.
Analysts see signs that Moscow may this time favor a victory by Prime Minister Tymoshenko, a more pragmatic candidate than Yanukovich, with whom it can deal more easily.
Yanukovich made no explicit mention of Tymoshenko or Yushchenko, but homed in on political infighting between the two former allies from the 2004 "Orange Revolution" which has paralyzed decision-making on the economy.
The two have sniped constantly as Ukraine has slipped into a recession with gross domestic product plunging 18 percent year-on-year in the second quarter.
Official campaigning for the poll begins in mid-October. The outcome will depend to a great extent on how influential post-Soviet oligarchs line up behind respective candidates.
On Saturday, Yanukovich received a boost from billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, an old backer who reaffirmed he would again support the former prime minister for the presidency.
Akhmetov is an eastern industrialist worth $1.8 billion according to Forbes magazine whose business interests cover steel, mining, banks and football.