A Probationary Presidency

Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko won the election. But can he win over the people?

Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine — Just before 9 p.m. on May 26, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appeared at Kiev’s President Hotel, her campaign headquarters, to concede defeat. Earlier that day, when 80 percent of the votes had been counted, her main rival, Petro Poroshenko, had 54 percent of the vote while she trailed with 13.1 percent. Supporters picked listlessly at chocolate cake in a reception area as her arrival was announced. With the aid of an assistant (she reportedly suffers from back pain), Tymoshenko hobbled across the stage to the podium. She was uncharacteristically brief. "The elections were democratic," she said to a sparse and subdued audience in the hotel amphitheater. "I want Ukraine to be happy and strong."

An hour later across town, the 48-year-old Poroshenko spoke from his campaign headquarters, a grand, stone building on Lavrska Street in central Kiev that once housed the city’s military arsenal. Hundreds of supporters and reporters had already spent two hours enjoying wine and the extensive buffet. The mood was triumphant; here, the chocolate cake disappeared quickly. In measured tones he promised to build closer relations with the European Union and tackle the problems facing Ukraine’s troubled east. He also declared he would never recognize Russia’s March annexation of Crimea. When asked about relations with Moscow, he replied that Ukraine’s "sovereignty and territorial integrity" was his priority. Poroshenko’s message was clear: Despite the Kremlin’s meddling, the spirit of the Euromaidan revolution would live on.

Across Kiev, voters sensed the unique importance of these elections in helping to bring stability to Ukraine. The lines outside polling stations stretched across the capital as thousands queued to vote; even a vicious midafternoon hailstorm couldn’t dampen the overall turnout, which is estimated to have been between 55 and 60 percent. "We are here because we want Ukraine to move into the 21st century," said a couple of young IT professionals as they stood in line to vote in the late afternoon. "For years under [former President Viktor] Yanukovych we went backwards. Now we want to go forwards — with Poroshenko."

But Poroshenko is a complex figure. The oligarch made his fortune in the cowboy years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and questions exist over his past business practices. He made his money not just by asset stripping (the traditional means of acquiring wealth among Ukraine’s financial elite) but by building a business. He owns Ukraine’s largest confectionery manufacturer, Roshen, earning him the moniker the "Chocolate King," though he also has many other interests, including owning 5 Kanal TV, Ukraine’s most popular news channel. Still, by oligarch standards, he is not especially rich. (In March 2013, Forbes estimated his wealth at $1.6 billion; Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man has $12.5 billion.)

Poroshenko has also held a number of ministerial posts under previous governments (notably minister of foreign affairs from 2009 to 2010 and minister of trade and economic development in 2012). He is unquestionably a part of the system. And this is where skepticism over whether he will bring any real (and badly needed) political change to Ukraine begins to show. The general feeling among Kiev’s intelligentsia is that the endemic corruption and bureaucracy that has smothered the political system for over 20 years will likely take a generation to fix and is at any rate unlikely to come from an "insider."

"He is an oligarch and oligarchs are part of the reason the country is in such a mess," said Bogdhan, a Ukrainian journalist filming people as they cast their votes at a polling center in central Kiev. "But he is better than most of them," he conceded. "Still, in many ways it’s a step back."

Bogdhan’s ambivalence is typical of much of the post-election reaction here. As the news filtered out, the overwhelming feeling on Kiev’s streets wasn’t joy or excitement — it was, at best, relief. Here, the elections were at least held successfully. Many Ukrainians feared that despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent May 23 promise at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum to respect the elections and to work with whomever was elected, Moscow would attempt to sabotage the process. More than 75,000 police personnel and volunteers were mobilized to ensure security during the vote (less so in many parts of the East), which was not without its scares. Election day began with rumors flooding Twitter that pro-Russian separatists had breached the national voting system, a claim the government quickly labeled a hoax.

"I’m glad it’s finished quickly," said Roman, the manager of a pizza restaurant near Maidan, who has seen his earnings fall by around 30 percent over the previous six months and is eager to see the country get back on solid economic footing. "Poroshenko is a businessman; he understands what needs to be done. We hope for at least a small improvement in things."

But Poroshenko will have to deliver more than just a small improvement in things; and he will have to do it quickly. Just as his victory was announced on the night of May 25, in what was almost certainly a deliberate attempt to disrupt the elections’ show of national unity, armed separatists seized Donetsk’s Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. The president-elect had little time to bask in any post-election glow before being asked for comment on the separatists. "Somali pirates," he replied.

Call it what you will, but the East is clearly Poroshenko’s most immediate and most serious problem.

At a news conference held on the morning of May 26, Poroshenko directly tackled the issue of Ukraine’s military failings and vowed to make the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine more effective. "From now on, our soldiers will be much better equipped and much better supplied. All of them will have life insurance and high salaries," he said. Several hours later, two fighter jets reportedly launched airstrikes against the separatists holding the airport.

This unusually rapid response against the separatists over recent months (compared with Ukraine’s generally lackadaisical military efforts) is as much a show of political muscle as military muscle.

The truth is, Poroshenko takes office facing both military and political problems. He may have won by a comfortable margin, but the electorate also made its dissatisfaction with the main candidates clear. In an election characterized by predictability, the one surprise was the strength of support for Oleh Lyashko, a former journalist and leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party, who received almost 8 percent of the vote.

Lyashko prides himself on not being a traditional politician. He made his name railing against the government’s inability to bring the East under control and even formed his own "Lyashko Battalion," which carried out attacks against separatists. He has claimed responsibility for the storming of a local government building in Torez in eastern Ukraine that killed a separatist and critically wounded another. It is an extreme form of activism that has gone down well among a population sick of what it perceives to be the government’s sustained military incompetence.

And as expected, voting in the East was widely disrupted. Only 20 percent of polling stations opened across the Donetsk region, with non
e open in the provincial capital, Donetsk city. Across the region as a whole, only seven out of 12 district electoral commissions were operating. Poll workers were subject to repeated harassment and intimidation as separatists stole ballot boxes and made a point of using them as trash cans. Voter turnout was reportedly only between 10 and 20 percent. Poroshenko may have a clear mandate from the people, but that doesn’t extend across all parts of the country.

And though the elections overall will have undoubtedly restored a measure of legitimacy to Ukrainian political life, the fact remains that all mainstream politicians in Ukraine remain on probation. In Maidan, Kiev’s central square, the uniformed militia that remains camped out in tents combine deep suspicion of Ukrainian politics with anger about the situation in the East. "These bastards just don’t stop," said Olexsandyr, a self-defense member who claims to have fought during Euromaidan, when asked about the airport siege. "Poroshenko needs to deal with them quickly — and with the same brutality they have been using against us."

But the revolutionaries’ support won’t be easily earned. Earlier in May, the so-called Maidan Council, the unofficial "governing body" of the people living on the square, decided that the activists would remain there until the parliamentary elections in September, to ensure the completion of Euromaidan at the ballot box. "We will see what Poroshenko does," said Olexsandyr, spitting onto the sidewalk. "If he’s no good, he’ll go the way of Yanukovych. We’ll make sure of that."

David Patrikarakos is a journalist and the author of War in 140 Characters and Nuclear Iran.

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