Ukraine’s opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych narrowly beat Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the presidential election run-off on Sunday that is expected to see Ukraine tilt back towards Russia.

With 97 per cent of votes counted, Mr. Yanukovych polled 48.40 per cent and Ms. Tymoshenko 45.99 per cent, a margin of 2.41 percentage points.

Given the small margin, Ms. Tymoshenko is expected to challenge the election results in court. However, European and Russian observers judged the Ukrainian vote as free and fair.

The election victory signals a dramatic comeback for Mr. Yanukovych, a 59-year-old former Prime Minister, who was robbed of victory in the previous election in December 2004 after election results were overturned in the pro-Western “orange revolution” against alleged vote rigging.

The West did not hide its disappointment with the outcome of Ukraine’s vote. Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Rapporters for Ukraine, Ms. Hanne Severinsen, described Mr. Yanukovych’s victory as a “tragedy.”

Mr. Yanukovych has promised to abandon Mr. Yushchenko’s bid for NATO membership, improve relations with Russia, and remove restrictions on the use of the Russian language in schools and media.

Analysts predict a further bitter fight for power between Mr. Yanukovych and Ms. Tymoshenko, who retains the post of Prime Minister. To replace her with a new Prime Minister of his choice, Mr. Yanukovych will either try to muster a parliamentary majority he does not have today, or find a ground to call a new parliamentary election.

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