Ukraine candidates relying on US advisers

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ahead of a presidential election that could tilt Ukraine’s orientation away from the West, leading candidates of all stripes have been seeking help from expensive U.S.-based political operatives.

Candidates have hired campaign consultants, lobbyists and public relations firms with deep ties in Washington. With an interest to securing vital connections, the most prominent candidates have sought firms with ties to recent U.S. presidential candidates, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, both Democrats, and Republican Sen. John McCain.

While some of the U.S. contracts are aimed at importing political expertise into a country with relatively little experience with campaigning in a democracy, the candidates also seem to want to show off their Washington connections to their constituents.

“Ukrainian politicians think it is crucial to cultivate an audience in Washington both for domestic political legitimacy and to facilitate their agenda,” said Samuel Charap, an analyst on the region at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Also, regardless of who wins, the new government will want to maintain smooth relations with the United States, which has played a major role in helping Ukraine secure loans during the economic crisis.

Ukraine’s current leaders were swept to power on the back of peaceful street protests in 2004 that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. The pro-Western movement was hailed in the United States and Europe as a victory for democracy and a blow to Russia’s lingering grip over politics in the former Soviet Union.

Five years on, however, the movement’s leaders have failed to deliver on promises of sweeping democratic reform, and the politician shouted down by the Orange Revolution, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych (yah-noo-KOH’-vich), is far ahead in the polls leading up to Sunday’s vote.

Yanukovych, whose Kremlin-backed election victory in 2004 was overturned by the Ukranian Supreme Court amid the street protests and allegations of fraud, has employed Paul Manafort, a Washington political strategist, who helped McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and whose partner Rick Davis was McCain’s campaign manager.

After Moscow’s open support for his presidential bid in 2004, Yanukovych has faced accusations of being a Kremlin loyalist, a reputation he has sought to shake during this campaign by appearing to warm to the West.

Prime Minister Yulia (YOOL’-yah) Tymoshenko (tee-moh-SHEN’-koh), who is considered Yanukovych’s chief rival for the presidency and is more Westward leaning, has relied on media consulting firm AKPD, which was founded by Obama’s now chief-of-staff David Axelrod. Axelrod no longer works for the firm.

The current president, Viktor Yushchenko (yoo-SHEN’-koh), whose popularity has plummeted since he led the 2004 Orange Revolution, has been getting polling and advice from Clinton’s campaign strategist Mark Penn, as well as the Kiev office of the PBN, a Washington-based consulting company.

The size of most of the U.S. contracts are hard to estimate, because the consultants have not registered under U.S. lobbying laws. None of the firms would comment on their work, but their employment is widely known in Washington and Kiev.

For the same reason, it also is hard to determine the range of services offered by the firms.

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Associated Press writer Simon Shuster contributed reporting from Kiev.