Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate manufacturer, claimed the Ukrainian presidency yesterday (25 May) with an emphatic election victory by 55.7% according to exit polls, taking on a fraught mission to end an undeclared war by Russia and steer his fragile nation closer to the West.
A veteran survivor of Ukraine’s feuding political class who threw his weight and money behind the revolt that brought down his Moscow-backed predecessor three months ago, the burly 48-year-old won 55% in exit polls on a first-round ballot marred by the reality that millions were unable to vote in the troubled eastern regions.
Poroshenko said he wants to “end war and bring peace”. Speaking after the announcement of the exit polls, he said his first step as president would be to visit the eastern Donbass region, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control in many areas.
He also said Kiev would never recognise Russia’s “occupation” of Crimea.
“For those people who don’t take (up) weapons, we are always ready for negotiations to guarantee them security, to guarantee their rights, including speaking the language they want,” he said in English.
Poroshenko said he would also like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
Although he strongly backs closer ties with the EU, Poroshenko also stresses the need to normalise ties with Russia.
Results will not be announced until Monday, but runner-up Yulia Tymoshenko, with only 13% of the vote, made clear she would concede, sparing the country a tense three weeks until the runoff.
Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King”, has no time to lose to make good on pledges to end “war” with separatists in the Russian-speaking east, negotiate a stable new relationship with Moscow, and rescue an economy sapped by months of chaos and 23 years of post-Soviet mismanagement and chronic corruption.
The size of his victory reflects in part Ukrainians rallying behind the front-runner in the hope of ending a political vacuum that Russian President Vladimir Putin has exploited to annex the Crimea peninsula and offer solidarity, and maybe more, to rebels in the east who want to break with Kyiv and accept Russian rule.
“He has taken a heavy burden on his shoulders,” said Larisa, a schoolteacher who was among crowds watching the results on Kyiv’s Independence Square, where pro-Western “EuroMaidan” protests ended in February in bloodshed, prompting President Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia. “I just want all of this to be over,” she added. “I think that’s what everybody wants.”
In the eastern Donbass coalfield, where militants ensured polling stations were closed to some 10% of the national electorate, rebels scoffed at the “fascist junta” and announced a plan to “cleanse” their “people’s republic” of “enemy troops”. A minister in Kyiv said in turn its forces would renew their “anti-terrorist operation” after a truce during the polling.
More than 20 people were killed in the region last week.
Claiming a popular mandate for a resumption of efforts to bind the nation of 45 million into association with the European Union – a drive that triggered the whole crisis six months ago – Poroshenko said he was ready to negotiate with Putin and called Russia a vital partner. He insisted Crimea must be returned.
Yet it remains unclear how the tycoon can square the circle of turning firmly westward as long as Russia, Ukraine’s primary export market and energy supplier, seems determined to maintain a hold over the second most populous ex-Soviet republic, occupying a vast swathe of the borderlands between East and West.
Nor is it clear that Poroshenko has new answers to resolving the uprising in the industrial east, given the weakness of his forces, and the threat of Russian military intervention – a threat that has raised fears of a new Cold War, or worse, and has been met by only tentative US and EU economic sanctions.
Declaring that his first trip would be to the Donbass – though quite when is unclear, given that it may take some time to be formally sworn in – Poroshenko said he was ready to negotiate with anyone, and to offer the kind of regional autonomy, Russian language rights and budgetary powers that many want in the east.
“To people who have taken up arms but are not using them, we are ready to give amnesty,” he told a news conference at which he fielded questions in a fluent mix of Ukrainian, Russian and English. “As for those who are killing, they are terrorists and no country in the world conducts negotiations with terrorists.”
Poroshenko can be sure of a welcome from the European Union and United States. President Barack Obama hailed the election as a step toward restoring Ukrainian unity. But although Putin told an international audience at the weekend that he was ready to work with a new Ukrainian administration, Russia may use the gaps in the election in the east to question its legitimacy.
A senior member of Putin’s party, deputy parliamentary speaker Sergei Neverov, gave a taste of that when he wrote on Facebook, “It is hard to recognise the legitimacy of elections when tanks and artillery are wiping out civilians, and a third of the population is driven to the polling stations at gunpoint.”
He ridiculed Western leaders for endorsing the vote.
Poroshenko is hardly a new face in Ukrainian politics, having served in a cabinet under Yanukovich and also under previous governments led by Yanukovich’s foes. This breadth of experience has given him a reputation as a pragmatist capable of bridging Ukraine’s divide between supporters and foes of Moscow.
A former national security council chief, foreign minister and trade minister, he was a strong backer of the protests that toppled Yanukovich and is thus acceptable to many in the “Maidan” movement who have kept their tented camp in the capital to keep pressure on the new leaders to honour their promises.
Constitutional changes since Yanukovich’s fall will leave Poroshenko with less power than his predecessor. He will share duties with Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk and parliament.
Poroshenko, who has worked closely with the liberal Yatseniuk in recent months, said there should be a parliamentary election before the end of the year – though he also said that it should not take place before conflict in the east was over.
Poroshenko and former prime minister Tymoshenko traded accusations of corruption when both were in government following the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05 that thwarted Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency. But many voters saw him as less culpable than others in Ukraine ,of enriching himself illegally.
Where many “oligarchs” across the former Soviet Union took control of huge, formerly state-owned assets in the 1990s, many credit Poroshenko with building his Roshen confectionery empire himself. His other interests include a major TV news channel.
Klitschko wins mayoral vote
The citizens of Kyiv also voted yesterday to elect a new mayor, with former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko winning with 57% according to exit polls and cementing his role in his country’s politics.
Pro-European Klitschko, 42, leader of the party Udar (Punch) was tipped as possible presidential candidate, but he left room for Poroshenko and choose the mayoral battle. The position of mayor of Kyiv is seen as one of the most important in the country and positions him for future presidential bids.
US President Barack Obama suggested that Ukraine's election may help unify the country.
"The Ukrainian people have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to choose their leaders without interference and to live in a democracy where they can determine their own future free of violence and intimidation," Obama said in a clear allusion to Russian efforts to shape events in Ukraine.
"This election is another important step forward in the efforts of the Ukrainian government to unify the country and reach out to all of its citizens to ensure their concerns are addressed and aspirations met," he added, saying Ukrainians voted "even in parts of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist groups sought to disenfranchise entire regions."
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
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