Ben Aris in Moscow -
Ukraine wakes up this morning on May 26 to a totally different country; one with a legitimate president and a chance to finally start rebuilding from the ruins left following the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych. The so-called Chocolate King, Petro Poroshenko, stormed the Ukrainian presidential elections on May 25 to win in the first round with over 50% of the vote and gained a clear mandate to lead the country out of its political and economic morass.
With 20% of the ballots counted, Poroshenko had won 54.39% of the vote with a turnout on the order of 60%, enough to give him a clear mandate and first-round victory. Opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko got 13.02% of the vote, enough to keep her in the political game, but low enough to marginalise her to some extent on the national scene. Poroshenko's staff says the inauguration could be as soon as June 8-10.
The high turnout has been seen as a crucial factor in ensuring that Russia is forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote. Russian President Vladimir Putin said during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum last week that he would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people," though stopped short of promising that Russia would respect the result of the vote itself. Given the high turnout, it is now extremely unlikely that Russia will refuse to acknowledge Poroshenko as the legitimate president.
"Turnout seems to have been very high, representing a vote by the population in favour of an independent Ukraine. This represents a defeat for separatists in SE Ukraine, and also for President Putin and Russia," Tim Ash, head of research at Standard Bank, said in a note. "It was important that the turnout was high, that a second round run off was avoided, while also that the victor - in this case, seemingly Poroshenko - secured a significant mandate to rule. And this vote has delivered all these aspects."
The head of the EU delegation to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, called the elections the "most honest for the last 20 years," which is a bit of hyperbole on Europe's part because unrest in the east of the country meant that the polling was seriously disrupted there. This stands against the 2010 presidential elections that delivered Yanukovych to office that were also dubbed "free and fair" at the time (and really were). The Ukrainian Central Elections Committee also passed the elections as free and fair.
The EU was fast to roll out its rewards (and also bolster Poroshenko's legitimacy) by announcing that Ukrainians might enjoy visa-free travel to the EU before the end of this year. The European Commission will meet on June 2 to decide whether Ukraine has completed the first phase of the action plan on visa liberalisation and is able to move to the second phase, Tombinski told reporters in Kyiv on May 25. "And after phase 2 is over, as was the case with Moldova, and this may take several months – visas will be cancelled."
What will he do next?
The next major political event will be parliamentary elections, which Poroshenko said must be held this year. Fresh elections for the Rada would finish the process of legitimatising the current government and are badly needed if the political vacuum that has existed in Ukraine since November last year is to be finally filled.
But in the short term Poroshenko faces a number of nasty problems. He is clearly a pragmatist. An oligarch who made his money from the chocolate factory Roshen, amongst other assets, from the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk (the same city as former president Leonid Kuchma and most of his administration), he served as a minister in the Yanukovych administration.
However, he clearly has liberal tendencies and also served in the administration of former president Viktor Yushchenko following the Orange Revolution in 2004. Moreover, amongst his media assets is Channel 5, which fearlessly broadcast scathing attacks on the Kuchma government during the attempt to hijack the elections in 2004 that led to the massive street protest that installed the Orange team.
It is this reputation as a pragmatist and someone who has served on both sides of the house that is his main appeal. He is seen as not belonging to either the orange or the blue camps, and so is a break with the dichotomy that has been a hallmark of Ukrainian domestic politics.
He inherits a country that is on the verge of civil war and an economy in tatters. Poroshenko announced that his first act as president will be to visit Donetsk, the epicentre of the protest movement, to seek a peace deal in the east of the country. But he also backed his works with the threat of renewed military action to bring the region back under Kyiv's thumb. Poroshenko promised the military operation in the east of the country will change: "It will be shorter and much more effective."
While turnout in the vote was high, estimated at over 60%, only one in five planned polling stations in Donetsk were able to function and turnout there was estimated to be just 15%. Even oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who lives and is registered in Donetsk, was unable to vote, according to reports.
The low turnout in Donetsk is going to be a problem for Poroshenko. While even the Kremlin will have to acknowledge that the vote was legitimate, that still won't help the new president bring the breakaway regions back into the fold. Locally the separatists are likely to reject the legitimacy of the vote. And they have guns. How he handles the situation will be a crucial first and early test for the new president.
Also a priority will be a trip to Moscow in an attempt to put relations back on a civil footing. “We cannot discuss the seriousness of security in our region without the participation of Russia. We will find the format and definitely will meet Putin," Poroshenko said at a press briefing.
Putin held out an olive branch during a question and answer session at the St Petersburg summit on May 23: “We are working with those people today who are controlling the power [in Kyiv], but after the elections, of course, we will work with the newly elected structures,” Putin said. “I hope that when the elections are over, all of these military activities will immediately stop."
Tymoshenko has called for a new Maidan protest (the third) and a referendum on Nato membership, which will be a red flag for Russia. But Poroshenko is unlikely to support Nato membership or even a referendum on the question. Russia has made it clear that Nato forces in Ukraine is a red line and there is no way that Moscow will accept Ukraine signing up for membership; in this case it would use all its considerable resources to completely destabilise the country even more than it has in the runup to the presidential election. The plan would be to make the cost of membership higher than the economy could bear.
The question of Ukraine's relationship with the EU is much more tricky. At a pinch the Kremlin would accept Ukraine moving closer to Europe, however Putin insists that Russia's interests must be respected. What exactly this means is not clear. Putin has set up a rival trade club in the form of the Customs Union, which will deepen when the Eurasian Economic Union comes into existence in January 2015. However, Ukraine cannot be part of both the EU and the EEU. Given that Ukraine is not going to be offered membership of the EU any time soon (if ever), there does seem to be the possibility of some sort of negotiated trade regime that would allow Ukraine to keep its piggy-in-the-middle status and work with both sides.
Poroshenko's rhetoric on the campaign trail of the last month (although there was remarkably little campaigning – Poroshenko and Klitschko spent a mere $8m on their combined campaigns, according to their staff) has been resolutely pro-EU to ensure the Maidan protest vote, but pundits reckon he will be a lot more pragmatic now he has the country's top job, as Ukraine does not have much of a future without some sort of friendly relations with Russia.
"Russia can still significantly undermine a Poroshenko presidency, and it will be waiting to see what the president elect is going to deliver in terms of concessions, including forging a new coalition government (to include those better representing Russia's interests), commitments to on Nato membership nor EU integration, and a new Federal constitution," says Standard Bank's Ash. "I am not sure that Poroshenko can or will be willing to deliver on much of this agenda, and particularly after this landslide victory."
One sticking point is that Poroshenko campaigned on a promise of never accepting the annexation of Crimea, but it looks highly unlikely that Crimea will ever be returned to Kyiv.
Klitschko wins mayoral election
Former world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko won the Kyiv mayoral election in a parallel vote on May 25. Eight parties competed for the job, with Udar, Klitschko's party, coming first with 42.3% of the votes.
Klitschko withdrew from the presidential race early on and threw his support behind Poroshenko, who reciprocated, supporting Klitschko's bid for mayor.
It was a clever move by the former boxer. He was at the forefront of the Maidan protests, but his pragmatic deal with Yanukovych on February 21 to allow the former president to stay in office until early elections hurt his popularity with the people on the streets. That deal was overturned within 24 hours and Yanukovych fled.
The main criticism against Klitschko is that he has little administrative experience. The job of running the capital will be his first opportunity to show what he can do. He has a reputation for honesty, but will have to deliver on material improvements for the residents of the capital. If he does a good job, it will make a solid platform for his future political career. He and his party also decided to stay outside of the current interim administration, which allows him to keep his hands clean of the dirty, but necessary, political compromises that must be made now in order to end the turmoil in the country.
Far right does badly
The presidential ballot took place despite weeks of fighting in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russian insurgents are still in control of government buildings and vowed to disrupt the ballot, especially in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which account for 5.1m of a total of 35.5m eligible voters.
At the time of writing it is still not clear how these troubled regions voted, but their share of the overall vote won't be enough to upset the result. But that has not stopped the Russian press on zeroing in on the problems in the east as a cause of concern. The Kremlin-backed RT TV station labeled the elections a "farce" on the back of the incomplete poll.
The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1m people. There was no voting in the city of Lugansk either, but some stations appeared to be open in the Lugansk region, according to local officials, <a href="http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/500829.html">reports the Moscow Times </a>
Ukrainian and international commentators were outraged after a Russian TV station reported that the far right party of Pravy Sektor was winning the presidential elections with 37% of vote according to exit polls on May 25.
"Remarkable: Russia TV reports far-right Pravy Sektor got 37% in Ukraine’s election, not the 1% he did get," tweeted Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt (@carlbildt).
However, the reports were not quite the egregious lie that most Twitterati portrayed it to be, as the clip shows the station went on to report correctly that Petro Poroshenko was well in the lead and on course to win the job in the first round. However, the incident only underscores the emotional nature of the elections.
Nevertheless the performance of the far right is important if the poll is to have legitimacy in the eyes of both Russia and Brussels and it did badly.
"Worth nothing that far-right candidates are less than 1% in Ukraine election. So much for all the scare propaganda from Russian media," Bildt added.
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