Poroshenko Fires a Salvo in the Information War

President Summons TV Channels, Proclaims Progress Against Ukraine’s Crises

Petro Poroshenko showed off to Ukrainians his government’s incremental victory last week in squeezing critical votes from a recalcitrant parliament to fund the war against Russia and stave off bankruptcy. To argue the case that his administration is making headway against Ukraine’s crises, Poroshenko invited five Ukrainian TV channels for an interview – and signed the critical new funding bills on live television.

The new president’s appearance appeared intended to consolidate his base, and at times to appeal particularly to the Maidan pro-democracy movement. Poroshenko said he is pushing the investigation into the previous government’s killings of more than 100 Maidan protesters last winter. And he repeated his vow to hold elections this autumn for a more democratically minded parliament, as sought by Maidan activists. Still, he said it remains unclear whether the electoral system, which includes party-controlled lists of nominees, can be democratized in time for that vote.

If Poroshenko was trying to show his ability to manage the crises, he may have scored points. In contrast to his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, he was articulate and seemed confident in the first major interview of his eight weeks in office. (He has not yet held a press conference as president.)  One big task Poroshenko left unaddressed in this appearance is his need to build a dialogue with ordinary citizens in eastern Ukraine, where Russian propaganda has portrayed his government as hostile to ethnic Russians and their culture.

Replacing the Parliament

Poroshenko’s questioners spent most of the interview on the planned election for the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s 450-seat legislature. The current Rada, seated by a dubious 2012 election, remains heavily populated with supporters of former President Viktor Yanukovych, many of them corrupt, no-show deputies better known for brawling than for wise law-making.  Poroshenko condemned those Yanukovych loyalists from eastern Ukraine who have voiced sympathy or support for the Russian-sponsored separatist guerrillas that the government is fighting in the southeast’s Donbas region.

“I don’t know how to work with a parliament when a large part of it is a fifth column controlled by another country,” he said. After an election in the autumn, “I expect a new, transparent, pro-European, parliament filled with new faces in which a real, pro-Ukrainian, anti-corruption majority can carry out reforms” of the economy and of government.

Ukrainians elect half of their legislators from districts similar to those for the lower houses of the US and UK legislatures. For the other half, citizens choose among “closed lists” controlled by the political parties. The parties are granted seats according to the proportion of that vote they receive. Poroshenko said he favored a change sought by democracy activists for “open lists,” in which voters can indicate which candidates they prefer from a party’s nominees.

”We don’t have time for discussions,” he said. “If they [legislators] don’t agree on a proportional system with open lists, let them go with a just a proportional system. If they can’t agree to anything, then the existing system will be used for the next election – but they will take place.”

Cleaning the Government’s House

“We need a re-setting of our institutions – police,  courts, and local administrations,” Poroshenko said, voicing confidence that Ukraine has the talent to re-staff its bureaucracy with professionals. He said he has ordered his own presidential administration slimmed down from 539 staff members to 410, of which 70 percent will be replaced with new personnel “based on ability and not on political motives.”

He said the government has begun making changes in the judiciary, where dozens of judges and prosecutors have been removed, he said, for obstructing efforts to investigate the killings, many by sniper fire, of more than 100 participants in the Maidan pro-democracy demonstrations in Kyiv.

Thirty prosecutors and eleven judges face criminal charges for that obstruction, he said.

Poroshenko said more than twenty of Yanukovych’s senior officials, including former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko and domestic intelligence chief Oleksander Yakymenko, have been listed as “wanted” for arrest by Interpol, the international police agency. While the Ukrainian government has issued arrest warrants for many former officials, including President Yanukovych, Interpol has announced so far its issuance of an international “red notice” only for former Energy Minister Eduard Stavytskyi, sought for “misappropriation, embezzlement” and corruption in office. Interpol’s rules make it cautious in issuing notices for the arrest of political figures, and Ukrainian news accounts cite Interpol spokesmen saying the agency still is reviewing the requests for red notices against other former Ukrainian office-holders.

The president’s comments included:

  • Praise for the revived army. Poroshenko acknowledged that Ukraine’s army has been re-assembled since the winter largely with volunteer efforts. “Two months ago we didn’t have an army,” he said. “In April-May the Ukrainian army was brutalized, disarmed, pushed down, demoralized without any will to win. Today we have an army – something very unexpected for our enemies – capable of winning. They are accomplishing unbelievable things.”
  • Ukraine’s international support. “In the world, the level of attention to Ukraine is very high, and we are capable of solving the problems we face,” Poroshenko said. He said Western nations have isolated Russia with sanctions, and will continue to offer aid if Ukraine reforms its economy. “The only problem is that no one will fight for us and no one will defend our country for us. This is our business and we will do this”.
  • Crimea is not for sale. Poroshenko was adamant that Ukraine will not relinquish Crimea, following its occupation and declared annexation by Russia last winter. He said the government is working with Ukrainians and foreign partners to pursue Russia in international courts. “Every month we are losing billions [of Ukrainian hryvnia, each worth eight US cents] because gas” supplied from Crimea, “in which Ukraine invested, Ukrainian taxpayers invested, is being stolen. This is absolute theft. The justice ministry together with our foreign partners and other legal expertise are preparing lawsuits” he said.
  • Eventual reconstruction of Donbas. Poroshenko announced the creation of a fund, with state and private contributions, to rebuild infrastructure in the southeastern region of Donbas, where fighting in the war with Russia has intensified around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The US, Japan and most European countries “have agreed to contribute to ease our burden of this renewal,” he said. Donbas-based oligarchs who have flirted with the Russian-backed separatist movement will be held accountable, financially and criminally, he said.

At the interview’s end, an aide brought several folders with the critical funding bills, including a new income tax, passed the day before by parliament. For the cameras, Poroshenko signed them – and an executive order cancelling subsidies and privileges for senior officials living in luxurious, state-provided villas outside Kyiv. He said the order requires publication of secret decrees by Yanukovych granting favors, plots, buildings and subsidies to government ministers living in such elite, government-provided estates. As of the weekend, that list had not yet appeared on the presidential web site.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

Image: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in a military uniform, meets residents of Slaviansk after Ukrainian troops re-captured it from Russian-led insurgents in July. Poroshenko has traveled repeatedly to Ukraine's provinces in his first weeks in office; Friday's television appearance was his first extended interview. (Ukraine Presidential Administration)