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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 24, June 7, 2014

New President Elected — Ukraine has Won Half the Battle

Monday 9 June 2014

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Notwithstanding the persisting crisis in the eastern parts of the country, Ukraine has succeeded in holding the presidential election on May 25, 2014. The new President, Petro Poroshenko, is a 48-year-old billionaire and chocolate magnate who was declared as the outright winner getting 54 per cent votes. This was most unexpected as he defeated his closest strong contender, challenger and popular leader being the former Prime Minister and leader of Batkivshchyna Party, Yulia Tymoshenko, who got only 13 per cent votes. There were other conte-stants who lost miserably—Oleh Lyashko with eight per cent of the vote, Anatoliy Hrytsenko with five per cent, far-Right politician Dmytro Yarosh getting about one per cent of the vote and Party of Regions candidate Mykhaylo Dobkin.

During the election campaign there were strong views that in the first round no one candidate would get the required 50 plus per cent vote and that there will be a second round of election and that few analysts speculated that Tymoshenko could have a fair chance of coming to power. The Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, needs to be complimented for holding the election as he emphasised that the government will make all efforts to make it possible for all Ukrainians to vote, even as there were concerns that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine would be attempting to disrupt the May 25 election, threatening to block polling stations in areas under their control. As it turned out, the election was not a smooth affair since as per reports separatists in the eastern regions, who insisted that the election was illegitimate, attacked polling stations and threa-tened campaign workers in some cities including Donetsk and Luhansk.

 The new elected President, Petro Poroshenko, is one of the richest men in Ukraine with estimated assets worth over $ 1.3 billion, being the owner of the popular Roshen brand of chocolates. He has been a political activist and took part in the famous Orange Revolution in 2004. He was one of the founding members of the Party of Regions along with former President Viktor Yanukovych who is in exile in Russia. Poroshenko is an experienced politician holding ministerial posts in several of Ukraine’s govern-ments during the past 15 years—as Foreign Minister in Yushchenko’s government in 2009-10, as Trade and Economic Development Minister under President Yanukovich in 2012 and so on. He is believed to have extended financial support to the Euromaidan protests, but did not play a leading role in the demons-trations. In the election he got strong support of voters from western and northern parts of Ukraine and he is reported to have made efforts to reach out to Ukrainian voters from the eastern parts as well. Having been elected as the President, he has challenging tasks to administer the country at this tumultuous period of the country’s history.

Warm Western Reactions

As expected, the Western leaders have reasons to feel contended by the outcome of the election as they have high stakes in Ukraine. For instance, Joao Soares, the special coordinator of the OSCE election monitoring mission in Ukraine, told a news conference in Kiev that the poll “largely upheld democratic commitments”. Similarly, Andreas Gross, head of a delegation from the Council of Europe, opined that the outcome of the election was extraordinary and that it “provides the new President of Ukraine with the legitimacy to establish immediately an inclusive dialogue with all citizens in the eastern regions”. The European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, has observed that “the successful holding of these elections constitutes a major step towards the objective of de-escalating tensions and restoring security for all Ukrainians”. The EU spokesman, Peter Stano, is of the view that Ukrainians “should take these polls as an opportunity for a fresh start for the country”.

The Western countries have reasons to be happy with the election, wherein the 80 per cent turnout is quite impressive by European standards, and the election of Poroshenko as the President of Ukraine, as he has been a consistent supporter of Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. Equally noteworthy is the fact that when he was the Foreign Minister, Poroshenko advocated Ukraine’s NATO member-ship although, as pointed out by analysts, he did not make that position part of his presi-dential campaign. Having got the mandate of the people, Poroshenko will certainly expedite the process of getting closer to the West and specially European Union. But NATO member-ship will be hard to realise as it will be strongly resisted by Russia.

Cool Reactions from Russia 

The fact that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has declared that Russia will respect the outcome of the election should encourage Poroshenko to expect legitimacy for his new government from Moscow. Putin’s views were reiterated by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who stated that Russia was ready for a dialogue with Poroshenko. This change in the environment which might help the dialogue process assumes importance because subsequent to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, Russia has not recognised the protem government and refused to hold direct talks with Kiev. Hence in response to Putin’s overtures, Poroshenko should make all efforts to improve Ukraine’s strained relations with Russia. Petro Poroshenko said he plans to meet with the Russian leadership in early June. He is aware of the fact that stability in eastern Ukraine is impossible without Moscow’s support and participation.

But at the same time he has threatened to continue the military offensive in the separatist eastern part of the country in order to make his government more “efficient”. He seems to be overconfident since he has argued that counter-terrorist operations should “not take two or three months but hours”. But strong military operations on ethnic Russians in the eastern part of Ukraine will not be acceptable to Putin.

Formidable Challenges Persist

The new government faces several major challenges including the urgency to stabilise the country, which is in the grip of economic, political, and geopolitical crises. Hence on getting elected, Poroshenko has conceded that “the first steps that our whole team will undertake from the start of the presidency should be focused on ending the war, ending chaos, ending law-lessness, and bringing peace to the Ukrainian land”. But the challenges are far too formidable.

Firstly, the situation in the eastern parts is far from normal. Even after his election, fighting between pro-Russian protestors and the Ukrainian military forces has intensified. As per reports, on May 26 a group of separatists, who were campaigning against the election, set fire to some parts of an ice-hockey arena. What was even more serious was that the government forces used combat jets and helicopter gunships when the separatists seized Donetsk airport that seemed to have resulted in the killing of over 30 pro-Russian protestors. Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, confirmed these casualties stating ‘the rebels had suffered heavy losses but gave no figures and said no govern-ment troops were killed’. The determination of the Poroshenko Government against separatists is also evident from the candid statement of the First Deputy Prime Minister, Vitaliy Yarema, that the “anti-terrorist operation” will continue “until not a single terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine”. Expressing his strong views for the killing of pro-Russian protestors by the Ukrainian Government, Putin has insi-sted that punitive military operations need to be stopped immediately.

Secondly, Ukraine faces economic crisis and its GDP is expected to decline by five-to-seven per cent in 2014 as predicted by the IMF. The budget deficit has reached 12 per cent of the GDP and it seeks economic assistance to the tune of $ 35 billion from the international financial institutions to tide over the difficulties. Additionally, Russia has insisted on repayment of debt and advance payment for the supply of oil and gas. Apart from that, the manufacturing sector has been hard hit during the last few years. The country is reeling under high inflation and unemployment that have hit the economy.

Thirdly, Poroshenko continues to face resis-tance from the eastern parts of the country. According to analysts, the self-proclaimed separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk did their utmost to disrupt and discredit the presidential election. What is worse for the new government is that these groups seem in no mood to enter into talks with the new President Poroshenko. The situation in the eastern parts has become highly complex as separatists are bent on the formation of an independent state of Novorossia. The new Ukrainian President faces a raging separatist insurgency in the east. It appears that these pro-Russian protesters (whom Ukrainians call separatists) of the eastern region continue to get moral and material support from their allies in Russia. The former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who is in exile in Russia, might be giving moral support to take revenge on his rivals in Ukraine. But under changing conditions some analysts have sensed that that the Russian Government itself might be backing away from the separatist groups being aware of the impact of sanctions already imposed and likely to be intensified by the Western countries, that have already adver-sely affected Russia’s political and economic relations with the West.

Fourthly, Poroshenko is aware of the fact that relations with Russia are among the most important for Ukraine. But for ‘resetting’ the ties with Russia, resolving the Crimea question is one of his priorities. He has proclaimed in his election campaign that he will do everything for “the return of Crimea to Ukraine and the protection of Ukrainians living in Crimea”. But this is going to be tough and highly ambitious as its is unacceptable to Russia since Crimea has already become part of the Russian Fede-ration. But what might have irked Poroshenko and the Ukrainians is the fact that on the day of the election on May 25, the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, was in Crimea distributing passports to the citizens.

Fifthly, Poroshenko has to meet the demand of the Euromaidan movement of signing the Association Agreement with the European Union that has helped him to win the election. While there should not be any difficulty in imple-menting this demand, the Maidan activists are also insisting for sweeping systemic changes, including constitutional reforms, tough anti-corruption measures, and lustration of officials tied to crimes from the Yanukovych regime. Poroshenko will face formidable challenges in implementing these demands as he was also partly the beneficiary of the system which helped him to become a billionaire in the short period of a decade.

Thus in lieu of conclusion it may be stated that after getting elected as the President, Poros-henko has won half the battle. He will face many challenges in the years to come to fulfil the hopes and expectations of the people of Ukraine for ensuring peace and stability and boosting economic development of the country as they have suffered under the violence and crisis during the last several years.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, Mumbai.