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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fiery Marxist Wins Ukrainian Hearts

KIEV -- Imagine a European country the size of France that is loaded with nuclear weapons, glorifies Marxism, censors the media and refuses to pay its foreign debts.

That should be Ukraine, according to Natalia Vitrenko, one of the former Soviet republic's most popular politicians and a leading candidate in the Oct. 31 presidential elections.

Vitrenko and about 30 other people were injured on Saturday when two grenades were hurled at one of her election rallies. The Interior Ministry said police arrested two suspects and were searching for the campaign organizer of a rival candidate.

In recent polls, the 47-year-old Progressive Socialist Party leader and a self-proclaimed "true Marxist" is running second behind incumbent Leonid Kuchma among more than a dozen presidential hopefuls.

Ukraine's "most unpredictable and extreme politician," as the Kiev Post newspaper has labeled her, looks anything but. One could mistake the fiery mother of three for a modest school teacher or an accountant - that is, until Vitrenko starts speaking.

"I am offering my people the way to save Ukraine," is the slogan that Vitrenko uses to advocate her brand of socialism, laced with nostalgia for Soviet times, anti-Western sentiments and pledges of state aid for the poor.

The political Molotov cocktail appeals to millions across the economically depressed nation, tired of waiting for better times since Ukraine became independent in 1991 following the Soviet collapse.

"I represent the largest threat to the existing regime as I'm carrying constructive ideas, I'm showing what the country should do," Vitrenko said Sunday.

Vitrenko's electoral platform blames Ukraine's troubles on destructive reforms "carried out under the International Monetary Fund's recipes."

While foreign critics blame Kuchma for failing to push meaningful market reforms, Vitrenko says even the halfhearted measures that have been adopted are too much.

Vitrenko pledges to revive a Soviet-style system. She wants to restore state control of the economy, including fixed or regulated prices for basic goods and services; a ban on the sale of farm land; boosting salaries and pensions; and providing free health care and university education.

Vitrenko's Ukraine would freeze payments on its foreign debt of more than $12 billion and sever ties with the IMF, which she accuses of "financial fascism."

She promises to send pro-market government leaders to labor camps and close the borders to trap rich "new Ukrainians" along with their money.

In addition, Kiev would rebuild what was once the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, since surrendered to Moscow, and would create a "common shield" against NATO with Russia and hard-line Belarus.

"There are plans to ignite an internal crisis in Ukraine, which will end in the deployment of NATO troops," Vitrenko warned voters. "I can't allow [that] to happen."

She doesn't say how she would regain Ukraine's nuclear weapons - but for her voters, the mere promise is enough.

Born in Kiev, Vitrenko studied Marxist economics and earned a doctoral degree in 1994. That same year, she was elected to parliament, where she was an aide to then-speaker Oleksandr Moroz, a socialist. Police now say Sergei Ivanchenko, a Moroz campaign organizer, was involved in the attack against her. Ivanchenko was last seen at his parent's house in the town of Salsk in southern Russia's Rostov region, but police have yet to detain him for questioning, Interfax reported Tuesday.

In 1996, Vitrenko broke ranks with Moroz and other hard-liners, accusing them of betraying true leftist ideas and formed her own party, which captured 14 seats in the 450-member Verkhovna Rada in last year's elections.

Vitrenko despises the media, refusing to grant interviews or even answer reporters' questions when approached in the corridors of the legislature. She pledges to have a "healthy" media if elected president.

She also doesn't spare rival leftists from attack. Some, says Vitrenko, are in fact business magnates and others, for instance Communist Party head Petro Symonenko, are plain "fakes."