Much hung on the results of Ukraine’s election last week. Citizens were not just picking the next president. They were choosing whether they would bow to the thuggery of Russian-backed rebels or whether they would assert their independence and demand a say in their and their country’s future. Not surprisingly for a people who have endured six months — before and after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych — of sometimes bloody protests against a corrupt and antidemocratic administration, they opted for the latter, refusing to be intimidated by the threats from the East. Yet if the people’s work is done, the responsibility now falls on the shoulders of newly elected President Petro Poroshenko to end the downward spiral of corruption and incompetence.
Since Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February in the face of mass protests triggered by his decision to scrap closer ties with Europe and instead link his country more closely to Russia, the Moscow government has worked to assert its influence over its neighbor. The re-annexation of Crimea provided a model for a surreptitious invasion in the eastern parts of Ukraine, areas that historically had closer ties to Russia and feel alienated from the more European-oriented western half of the country.
Russian-backed separatists who seized power in several cities declared the government in Kiev, as well as the elections last week, illegal. They held their own ballots that, not surprisingly, returned overwhelming results in favor of breaking with the central government. They refused to allow national election to proceed in areas under their control. That did not stop the ballot from proceeding, nor should it have. Rebel territory accounts for just 15 percent of Ukraine’s population.
The remainder of Ukraine’s citizens backed Poroshenko for president, giving him 54 percent of the vote, sufficient to avoid a runoff. Poroshenko, a billionaire known as “the chocolate king” for his success in the candy business, has served in Parliament since 1998, including as head of the Parliamentary Budget Committee (where he was accused of “misplacing” just under $9 million). More recently he served as foreign minister and minister of trade and economic development.
Poroshenko is seen as a pragmatist who, while favoring closer alignment with the West, understands the need for good relations with Russia as well. Many of the protesters who have occupied the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, see Poroshenko as part of the system they fought to remove.
Poroshenko denies charges that he is another of “the oligarchs” who saw the Orange Revolution of 2004 as an attempt to enrich themselves.
For all their differences, the one common thread in every government in Kiev since 2004 has been a penchant for self-enrichment. The Maidan protesters, along with outside forces such as the International Monetary Fund, have been pushing through a package of reforms that would increase transparency and end the corruption that has characterized Ukraine’s economy and politics since 2004.
Poroshenko can prove his bona fides by backing those reforms, strengthening them and making them a reality.
The most pressing task, however, is reaching out to Ukrainians in the east and assuring them that they have a place in the new Ukraine. Although Poroshenko equated the rebels with Somali pirates and said that he would never negotiate with terrorists, he must quiet the fears in the east that their views count for nothing. The criminals and the terrorists must be confronted and defeated — and the Kiev government has done that with a military assault on separatist strongholds — but at the same time he must reach out to the disaffected who feel they have no say in government policy.
For a start, the Russian-speaking minority should get protections for their culture and language, but within the framework of a united Ukraine. Here it is important to note that Poroshenko received strong support — in some cases a majority — from voters in the eastern part of Ukraine where ballots were allowed to be cast. The president-elect promised that his first trip in his new office would be to the east.
That outreach must be coupled with talks with Russia. Moscow must be put on notice that the charade — its active support for the separatists, including in some cases, the provision of arms and fighters — is over. There is ample evidence of Russian involvement. Ukraine can threaten to make it public if Moscow does not rein in its surrogates. At the same time, however, Poroshenko should acknowledge Russian concerns about Ukraine’s future and promise that his country will not become a forward base for Western military forces.
The most pressing task is economic reform. He must not just end the corruption; he must get the economy back on track and ensure that all Ukrainians share in that process. Much of eastern discontent stems from a feeling of marginalization and a belief that closer ties to Russia will serve them better than ties with the West.
A better distribution of the gains from economic success and closer integration with Europe will go a long way to diminish the appeal of Russia, especially if coupled with respect for their cultural heritage. With this election, Poroshenko and Ukraine have a chance to finish the business of the Orange Revolution, but only if he and the entire country see their fates as inextricably linked. It is not too much to ask, but it is more than previous governments have delivered.