May 26, 2014
REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
As business magnate and former foreign and economy minister Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, Atlantic Council analysts Adrian Karatnycky and Sabine Freizer offered early thoughts on his road ahead. Freizer, a senior fellow at the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, wrote from her base in Istanbul. Karatnycky, a New York-based senior fellow at the Council’s Transatlantic Relations Program, spoke in an interview with the BBC.

On Poroshenko’s experience and decision-making style.
“He has experience running the central bank, he has experience running the budget committee of the parliament, minister of the economy, foreign minister, head of the national security council,” said Karatnycky. “Since Ukraine confronts twin challenges – economic recovery and the challenge of national security and relations with Russia, I think he’s uniquely equipped to handle both of those dimensions.”

Karatnycky added: “He keeps his own brief, he has a very small group of intimate advisors, and regards himself – he is his own think tank – he regards himself as having the capacity to work through issues and take decisions. [An] extremely self-confident guy.”

On the crisis in Ukraine’s southeast: Poroshenko’s offer of dialogue.  
“Poroshenko promised that his first domestic trip will be to the east, where he hopes to thank his supporters but also to reach out a hand to the population that has often felt forgotten by Ukraine’s leadership,” wrote Freizer. Economic and political frustrations of the predominantly Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine has been sharpened by a Russian propaganda campaign alleging that Nazi sympathizers had taken over the government in Kyiv and forced out President Viktor Yanukovych (who is an easterner).

In the face of that popular anger toward Kyiv and the seven-week-old armed insurrection demanding independence for the Donbas region, Poroshenko “has much work to do in the coming months to restore trust and dialogue between the capital and the east,” according to Freizer. “And in the east, not only with those who sided with the separatists, but also with those who support a united country and felt that their police betrayed them.” Police in Donbas typically have failed to confront the Russian-led militias that have seized government buildings and attacked residents who show support for Ukrainian unity.

A National Dialogue project, which is being promoted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, “is a good way to start isolating the most radical [secessionist] factions but it will have to be followed by a real public discussion on decentralization” of power in Ukraine, Freizer wrote. “Already in 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 efforts were made to break the country’s centralized system of governance. Now they are needed more than ever, not only to address grievances in the east and south, but also to increase public participation at the local level across Ukraine.”

In pursuing dialogue with people in Donbas, “I don’t think he [Poroshenko] is going to be dealing with separatists,” said Karatnycky. “I think he’s going to be dealing with people from the Yanukovych [political] establishment. Not from the Yanukovych team, but people like the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who today understand that this group of separatists is a direct threat to their interests. So the entire former political establishment that ruled for decades over the Donbas is also in some odd sense united in opposition to this radical, extremist group of separatists. I don’t think there will be any negotiation with the guys with the guns. They will be [targets] of a counter-terrorism operation. But there will be negotiation with the former leadership, … who were linked to the Yanukovych government.”

On a Poroshenko move against Russian-led rebels in the southeast.
Ukraine’s strategy in the troubled southeast must include getting a better grip on order according to John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Ukraine who now heads the Council’s Eurasia center.

For Adrian Karatnycky, “one of the … issues that has been left un-discussed is that Ukraine has not … declared a state of emergency [in the Donbas region] because it would have meant cancellation of elections. So I think there is room for Mr. Poroshenko now, if it is needed, to bring in the army as well as the interior ministry forces, into policing and trying to put a lid on this invasion” by Russian forces who have included military intelligence officers, Russian Cossack adjunct police and other Russian nationalists. “It is now clear from the large number of Chechens who have been seen in Donetsk and the large number of Russian citizens who have come from the outside to wage war on the Ukrainian people, that this is a combination of separatists domestically as well as a large number of foreign fighters.”

On Poroshenko’s political imperative to move quickly against corruption.
Sabine Friezer noted that Poroshenko’s apparent victory in the first round of voting will save about three weeks’ time that otherwise would have been spent on a second round of election. “Ukraine has little time to waste and Poroshenko can now jump into the reform process. For many, especially those who struggled for reforms” during the winter-long pro-democracy and anti-Yanukovych demonstrations on Kyiv’s Maidan, “reform so far has been too slow,” Freizer wrote.

“A group of some thirty NGOs, activists and think tanks have created a reform center in the government,” according to Freizer. “But the anti-corruption legislation they are pressing for is often blocked in parliament by the country’s oligarchs and their allies. Poroshenko will be in a better position to negotiate with the political and business elite. He can now drive the process and encourage difficult decisions -- like the firing of corrupt public servants who clog many government structures, and the transforming of public procurement systems. But he must immediately takes steps to implement a clear and comprehensive vision of change.” 

Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson agrees on the urgency. For Poroshenko and his main ally, UDAR party leader and apparent Kyiv mayor-elect Vitaliy Klitschko, “the question is whether they can govern Ukraine decidedly differently from their predecessors, beginning with a zero tolerance approach to corruption and a durable commitment to reforms and transparency,” Wilson writes in an analysis.

On Russia’s occupation of Crimea as a continued point of conflict with Ukraine and the West.
Election day on May 25 included reminders of the dispute over Russia’s declared annexation of Crimea. “Russia could not help but remind the world of its occupation,” Freizer wrote, when “Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Crimea on … his second trip since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in March.”

“With so much of the world’s attention on eastern Ukraine in the past two months, many have forgotten Crimea’s plight, Freizer wrote Sunday evening. “President Poroshenko should continue to shine a spotlight on the peninsula.”

Within hours, Poroshenko had done just that. “Ukraine will never recognize the illegitimate referendum” by which Russia claims Crimea’s 2 million people demanded Russia’s annexation, Poroshenko said in his statement declaring victory in the presidential contest. “It will never recognize the occupation of Crimea.”

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