Solidarity hero joins the men trying to organise a peaceful revolution

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Yuriy Kostenko' dark Toyota limousine slid along the sometimes steep, snow-covered streets of the Ukrainian capital. His driver, Volodya, relegated to the back seat, grumbled.

Yuriy Kostenko' dark Toyota limousine slid along the sometimes steep, snow-covered streets of the Ukrainian capital. His driver, Volodya, relegated to the back seat, grumbled.

Mr Kostenko is in a rush these days and often jumps into the driver's seat before Volodya can stop him. Mr Kostenko, 50, is leader of the People's Party, and one of the closest political allies of the pro-democracy opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, the man at the centre of the political storm gripping Ukraine that has even drawn in that old political warhorse Lech Walesa.

As Mr Yushchenko leading ally, Mr Kostenko's days have been manic as he stokes the mood of thousands of protesters. Their camp is preparing for power and a possible revolution.

Sometimes, Volodya doesn't even make the back seat of Mr Kostenko's limo. Yesterday, his boss left without him. "I know it annoys him a bit but, right now, driving myself is the only way I have to relax for a few minutes," Mr Kostenko said.

He talked in measured tones, sometimes raising his eyebrows and grinning as his mobile phone brought yet another call. The drive took him to his office in parliament where he looked through a pile of faxes and took note of a long list of messages logged by his secretary.

The office is lined with photographs of mountains and climbers. Mr Kostenko is an accomplished mountaineer, having tackled the Alps, the Andes and the Caucasus. He is also a potholer and in 1988 he volunteered to rescue victims of an earthquake that had hit Armenia. He remembers fondly some of the British rescue teams he met there.

The fitness that climbing demands probably gives him the reserves of energy to keep going on the less than four hours' sleep he has had each night since Saturday.

The next stop was one of the buildings the opposition uses for its meetings in the old city near one of Europe's first universities, the Kiev Mohyla Academy. Here the atmosphere crackled as young volunteers worked furiously.

Clad in orange sweaters, dresses, hats, boots, ribbons, scarves ­ some of the women also had orange nails ­ they rushed around, focused but quick to smile for Mr Kostenko who greeted them all with affection.

Next, he made for a meeting with the Polish Solidarity leader Mr Walesa, who was in Kiev to lend support. With Mr Yushcehnko and other close aides, the small group discussed the unfolding drama which Mr Walesa said he hoped would lead to Ukrainian democracy. He was sped to Kiev's main street where he made a pledge of support in front of a cheering crowd of 200,000.

Moving on, Mr Kostenko fielded calls from all around Ukraine as local organisers of the opposition movement looked for news. Government-run television channels and newspapers were saying little about the political turmoil. Mr Yanukovych himself has said "nothing unusual is happening".

The election commission proclaimed Mr Yanukovych the winner on Wednesday by a slim margin. Mr Kostenko said: "That was ominous because it meant that they were ready to use violence. Perhaps it will come to that, but I am still optimistic we can overturn
the results and get true democracy for Ukraine without bloodshed."

Mr Kostenko, who studied engineering, was a prominent member of Ukraine's independence movement in the 1980s. He became a minister a decade ago in a government run by the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, who nominated Mr Yanukovych as his successor.

He was responsible for talks to rid Ukraine of the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union and also for getting help in handling the effects of the Chernobyl reactor explosion. Eventually he could no longer bear to work for Mr Kuchma; he was one of the few ministers who resigned rather than being fired.

He drove on and smiled as a phone call confirmed that another local administration had declared it would only recognise Mr Yushchenko as president.

"You can see that the people, all ages, all walks of life, are with us," he said. "Ukraine has been waiting for this moment for a long time and they are not going to lose the opportunity for real freedom and real dignity."

As he got out of the car at one stop a young man, one of the hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters occupying the centre of Kiev, ran towards him. He recognised Mr Kostenko and asked him to sign the Ukrainian flag draped around his shoulders. Mr Kostenko asked his name and signed the flag, adding "Glory to Ukraine".

Next stop was at a former union building on Khreschatyk Street, surrounded by a growing crowd of opposition supporters. The political council chaired by Mr Yushchenko was meeting, incorporating the Committee for National Salvation formed on Wednesday. It was held behind closed doors.

After several hours Mr Yushchenko emerged to reveal: "Ukraine's intelligence agency is coming over to our side and the Supreme Court has cast doubt on the election results." Then, flanked by Mr Walesa and Mr Kostenko, he said: "We're creating a national guard. We've had hundreds of soldiers and militiamen asking who they should report to. They want Yushchenko as commander-in-chief."

Soon, officers of the militia came on stage to declare their allegiance to Mr Yushchenko. The crowd cheered. Afterwards, Mr Kostenko, who is married with a son, said he needed a break: "I think I can meet my wife for 15 minutes."

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