Not only the European Union went to the polls last week-end. Ukraine, or rather, what is left of it, voted to elect the new president. Petro Poroshenko, confectionary tycoon, won on the first round of elections gaining over 55% of the vote. It is certainly a positive step, after the expulsion of Yanukovitch in February and the establishment of an interim government supported by protesters, which not legitimized by a popular vote, and especially after the Russian intervention in Crimea and the outbreak of a conflict, albeit at low intensity for now, in the eastern region of the country. Finally, the new course of Ukraine can count on a reference figure supported by clear popular support, expressed through regular elections. Poroshenko possesses certain features that could make him a valuable figure in this delicate phase of Ukrainian politics. He is an experienced politician, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, first with Julia Tymoshenko and then with Yanukovitch’s government, from whom he soon took a distance, declaring a pro-European stand. At the same time, he did not join the Provisional Government and said he would seek a negotiated agreement with Russia. Unquestionably, the new president forms part of Ukraine’s oligarchy, with remarkable economic interests in Russia. But to date he has never been involved in high-level investigations of corruption, and because of his recent political decisions he underwent the freezing of his bank accounts by the Russian authorities, as well as the closure of some of his stores. He is therefore a figure who seems to have what it takes to act as a mediator and try to mend serious fractures. However, the solution of the crisis in Ukraine remains an arduous task, while risks and concrete problems drag on. The first risk is linked to the ambivalence of the new president that could develop into ambiguity if he concealed interests and adopted operating methods less innovative than expected. In addition to this risk, there are serious, concrete problems, notably the armed conflict that broke out in the self-proclaimed independent eastern region, where pro-Russian militias prevented the holding of presidential elections. Just a few hours after the election of Poroshenko a bloody battle between the army of Kiev and the local militias for the control of the airport of Donetsk caused dozens of casualties. While reaffirming his intention to keep Ukraine united, the new president said he wanted to seek a negotiated solution that would also involve Russia. It is certainly a wise position, but as has happened in the case of previous ethnic and separatist conflicts, announcing the will to reach a mutually agreed solution, and thus implicitly seeking an agreement that recognizes the broader interests of the contestants, may lead in the short term to an escalation of the conflict in the mutual attempt to conduct negotiations from a position of strength. A second major problem is linked to decreased powers conferred to the President of the Republic by the restored 2004 Constitution when compared with those of Yanukovitch. Poroshenko will have to try to promote a stable parliamentary majority and a solid government. If not, it will be hard for Ukraine to address the difficult challenges that lie ahead. The alternative would be to elect a new parliament, but it would imply another stalemate in the process. The third problem of Poroshenko is Europe. To the east the interlocutor is clear, but it is much less so in the West, especially now. It will take time to renew the vertices of the European institutions, and unfortunately it is not certain that the new EU will be more interested in Ukraine than the EU led by Barroso, Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton.
Poroshenko is the president-elect. Kiev-Moscow dialogue. Pitfalls along the way