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Candidate criticizes Ukraine liberalization

He pledged to restore "the rule of law" if he is elected president and align policies with Russia.

KIEV, Ukraine - Ukraine has paid too high a price for the democratic reforms ushered in by the 2004 Orange Revolution, according to the pro-Russian front-runner in the country's presidential race, who pledges to bring back the "rule of law" if elected next month.

Viktor Yanukovych, whose Kremlin-backed election victory in 2004 was overturned by the Supreme Court amid allegations of fraud, said the pro-Western revolution that brought his rivals to power had led to political chaos, corruption, and a dismal economy.

"So what did this Orange Revolution give us?" Yanukovych asked Monday in an interview. "Freedom of speech? That's very good. But what price did the Ukrainian people pay for this? For the development of this democratic principle in our country, the price was too great."

Democracy is "above all the rule of law," which the Orange Revolution has failed to bring, he said.

Since taking power in 2005 on a wave of hope and excitement, the revolution's leaders have disappointed many Ukrainians, fostering nostalgia among some for the stable, if autocratic, rule of an earlier era.

The Orange Revolution took Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, as the pro-Western leadership sought membership in the European Union and NATO. It also deepened animosity between the pro-Russian east and the west of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism is strong.

Yanukovych said his first priority as president would be to revive the use of the Russian language in schools and in the workplace, a move that would reverse the "forced Ukrainization" of the millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who support him.

"This is the main question that we have to solve right now, the one that is very seriously worrying the people," he said.

This change would comply with the one wish Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev made last week for the Ukrainian elections.

"The only thing I really want is for the future president . . . to be intent on warm, heartfelt, even brotherly relations between our countries, and for the Russian language not to be insulted," Medvedev said in a televised interview.

With elections less than three weeks away, Yanukovych, 59, is leading in the polls. The former electrician said that he would put his weight behind Moscow on issues ranging from trade to security.

He repeated his pledge not to seek membership in NATO, Russia's Cold War foe. But he said he would give his full support to Medvedev's proposal for a joint European security regime, which has gotten an icy reception in most of Europe.

He also promised, if elected, to do everything in his power to speed Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Viktor Yushchenko, the current president and the leader of the Orange Revolution, is going into the vote with approval ratings in the single digits.

He has been at loggerheads with a former ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for most of his time in office, causing political gridlock that has deepened the country's economic collapse and alienated voters.