by Derek Davison
Ukrainians took to the polls May 25 to elect a new president, the chocolate magnate and former foreign minister, Petro Poroshenko. But the election was marred by violence involving pro-Russian separatists in the country’s beleaguered eastern Donbas region, even as Russia itself appeared ready to reduce tensions.
With a reported 55% voter turnout, Poroshenko was the overwhelming victor, taking 54% of the vote, compared to the 13% received by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Turnout was depressed especially in the eastern part of the country where pro-Russia militias and their supporters boycotted the vote and the continued unrest forced the closure of as much as 75% of the region’s polling places. The results were a blow to far-right parties Svoboda and Right Sector, the candidates of which each received only around 1% of the vote a piece. But another far-right candidate, Oleh Lyashko, finished in third place with just over 8% of the vote.
At the same time that Poroshenko was celebrating his victory, violence in the Donbas city of Donetsk moved the country closer to civil war. A group of pro-Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic reportedly took control of part of the city’s airport, prompting an assault by Ukrainian security forces that reclaimed the airport and may have killed as many as 35 separatists and 40 people overall. This was the most violent clash in the crisis since May 2, when more than 40 people were killed in Odessa after a pro-Ukrainian mob forced a crowd of pro-Russian protesters into a government building and set it on fire. Today separatists also reportedly shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter near the city of Slovyansk, killing 14 people, including a high-ranking general in the Ukrainian National Guard.
Poroshenko’s immediate concern is bringing an end to the violence in Donbas and trying to restore some unity to the country, but it’s unclear how he will accomplish those aims. He insists that his first trip as president will be to the Donbas region and that his government will offer amnesty to separatists who agree to stop fighting, but he has also vowed to give “no quarter” to those who do not. Poroshenko must also find a way to achieve closer ties to the European Union, which is his stated preference, while repairing Kiev’s fractured ties to Moscow — essential if Ukraine is to have any kind of national security. This process may already be happening; on Wednesday Ukraine’s Naftogaz natural gas company reportedly reached an EU-brokered deal with the Russian gas firm Gazprom to settle a substantial portion of Ukraine’s $3.5 billion debt to the Russian company. Poroshenko has promised to begin a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin as soon as possible.
Recent Russian rhetoric suggests that Poroshenko will find a willing partner in that dialogue. Late last week, Putin said his government would “respect” the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential vote. Prior to a May 11 secession referendum in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin had urged separatists to postpone the vote (they ignored his request). Most significantly, Putin has said he is ordering Russian troops on the Ukrainian border to withdraw, and while this is not the first time he has claimed to have ordered such a withdrawal, this time there are apparently some signs of movement. There is substantial reason to believe that, despite Poroshenko’s clear preference for closer Ukrainian ties to Europe, he and Putin will be able to work with one another. Ongoing tensions in eastern Ukraine are going to complicate that process, however, as Russian officials have called on Kiev to cease its military operations against separatists.
Now that the election is over, Ukraine has the opportunity to quell the unrest it has been plagued by since the Euromaidan protests ousted the elected Yanukovych and installed a caretaker government in Kiev with dubious legitimacy and almost non-existent support in eastern Ukrainian. But is Poroshenko the right person for that job? He has been a fixture in Ukrainian politics since he was first elected to parliament in 1998, serving in the cabinets of former presidents (and bitter rivals) Viktor Yushchenko and Yanukovych. He is believed to have helped fund the Euromaidan movement, but was not active in the protests. He has advocated closer ties with the EU but has considerable business interests in Russia via his Roshen Confectionary Corporation. He has no political ties to radical right-wing elements in Ukrainian politics that could alienate him from the pro-Russia east. On paper, then, Poroshenko has the credentials of someone who can appeal to all sides of the current conflict, particularly if he is prepared to offer eastern Ukrainians the kind of regional autonomy and Russian-language rights that he talked about during the campaign.
In reality, however, Poroshenko faces considerable, possibly insurmountable, challenges, and it’s not yet clear how he plans to tackle them. Despite the immediate urgency of the situation, he must be willing to proceed slowly in terms of bringing the breakaway Donbas region back under control. Moving rapidly to end the crisis means more military force, which will not improve Kiev’s image in the east and may cause Russia to re-engage in the crisis. Poroshenko must also work with Putin to start normalizing Ukrainian-Russian relations; Ukraine’s national security depends on repairing those ties, and its already weak economy depends on reaching a favorable deal with Gazprom to retire Ukraine’s massive debt and keep gas prices at a reasonable level. Poroshenko should also take steps to improve that weak economy, to combat corruption, and make the reforms that will distinguish his government from the Yushchenko and Yanukovych administrations. If, as seems likely, Poroshenko pursues a course of neoliberal IMF-driven austerity — the same broadly neoliberal agenda that his failed predecessors followed — then he may quickly find himself on the wrong side of Ukrainian public opinion.
Photo Credit: Mstyslav Chernov