Election of a President Poroshenko Could be a Step Forward – but to Where?

May 20, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

This Sunday, May 25, Ukrainians (or most of them anyway) will vote in a presidential ballot organized by the unelected Kiev administration that forced President Viktor Yanukovych from office. It is widely expected that oligarch Petro Poroshenko will win, possibly in the first round.

Expectations vary widely as to what Poroshenko’s election would mean. On one side, the Kiev administration and its western supporters hope to have an unassailably “legitimate” president who can then prosecute the forceful suppression of “terrorists” and “Russian agents” in the east. On the other, the election results will be pronounced meaningless by anti-Kiev activists in the east and south – where prospects for even holding the ballot are iffy, particularly in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, which on May 11 heavily voted (in referenda denounced by Kiev and the west) for independence from Ukraine.

Moscow has taken a measured approach, voicing lukewarm endorsement to the May 25 ballot and indicating that Poroshenko would be someone they can work with. Despite some anti-Russian statements, Poroshenko has substantial business interests in Russia, which he is unlikely to want to jeopardize.

Poroshenko is Ukraine’s ultimate political chameleon and dealmaker, with an uncanny penchant for ending up on the side of whoever has power at the time. A founder of the Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, he served in a ministerial capacity under both presidents Yanukovych and his “orange” predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.

Despite his insistence that Ukraine must remain a unitary state, Poroshenko’s biggest challenge will be to figure out how to retain the eastern and southern regions that are spiraling out of Kiev’s control. The so-called “roundtable” discussions sponsored by the Kiev administration – talks that pointedly exclude eastern self-defense forces, i.e., the people with whom negotiations are most urgently needed – have been a total failure. Efforts to crush the “terrorists” and “separatists” with military force (or more properly, with forces of the new so-called “National Guard,” believed to be manned by goons from Pravy Sektor and other extremist groups) have succeeded only in alienating people further.

Kiev and western governments are keen to dismiss the anti-Kiev activism in the east and south as just meddling by Moscow. But as even some western media and analysts conceded that the enthusiastic turnout for the self-determination votes on May 11 evidenced an undeniable level of genuine public support: a majority in some places, a very healthy minority in others. Polls consistently show that solid majorities in the east and south would prefer to remain in Ukraine – as well as residents’ rejection of the legal and constitutional validity of the post-Yanukovych administration and abhorrence for the Banderist element that holds key functions in Kiev.

As loath as Kiev and the west are to admit it, opposition to Kiev is not just the work of a few embedded Russians (none of whom Kiev has managed to produce) but fundamentally is driven by local dynamics. Following May 25, things in the east and south can go either way, depending on which direction (presumptive) President Poroshenko decides to pursue.

To start with, while maintaining the principle of a united if not unitary Ukraine, he has to broaden talks to include all perspectives, including representatives of Donestsk and Lugansk. The assaults on Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and other towns must cease and forces pulled back. If Yanukovych was threatened with sanctions for the prospect of using riot police to clear the Maidan, how can Kiev’s unleashing of helicopters, tanks, and artillery against Ukrainian citizens be justified? The drift toward civil war can still, barely, be stopped, and it would be Poroshenko’s job to do it, not try to “win” a conflict from which no one can benefit. If Ukraine is to remain one country, decentralization (and specifically federalization), neutrality, and language rights are absolute necessities.

No less urgently, Poroshenko would take office as the partially elected president of a bankrupt country with a collapsing economy. His “legitimacy” will not be a given but will have to be proved by achievements, and fast. He must not fall into the mistake the EU (particularly, the irresponsible Eastern Partnership) sought to impose on Yanukovych: the need to make an either/or choice “for Europe” or “for Russia.” Ukraine needs to have a working relationship and close economic ties with both – and to be honest, a bailout in which both participate -- if it has any hope of staving off catastrophe and disintegration.

Poroshenko is clever enough to know that. The question is, will radical elements in Kiev – and perhaps some western officials – allow him to do what he must know needs to be done?