Poroshenko’s Task: Halt Rebellion and Bankruptcy, Then Fix the System

Petro Poroshenko tells reporters he will not negotiate with Russian-backed secessionist militias as a nearly complete vote count showed him winning Ukraine's presidency. REUTERS/David MdzinarashviliIn declaring victory yesterday as Ukraine’s president-elect, Petro Poroshenko is preparing to take the helm of a country whose economy is broken, its political system dysfunctional, three of its provinces either occupied or terrorized by Russian soldiers or proxy forces. The leaders of its huge, aggressive neighbor bluntly say that Ukraine shouldn’t really exist as a state.

So assuming that the official vote count validates yesterday’s exit polls, what is a President Poroshenko to do?

Bringing order to Donbas, Ukraine’s far southeast, is the most pressing issue. Russian-backed separatist militias control much of the two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, that make up this region. A measure of the government’s weakness is that only nine of thirty-four electoral districts in Donbas operated yesterday, according to the state election commission. (A more optimistic, but unconfirmable, map suggested on May 21 that pro-government forces might dominate as much as half of that region – 18 out of 36 administrative districts, or raions.)

Residents of the region say they are terrorized by the secessionists, who prevented voting by smashing election offices and threatening local election committee members. On Thursday, a guerrilla force ambushed a Ukrainian army convoy camped on a road in Donetsk, killing sixteen soldiers and wounded scores of others – the heaviest single loss of the conflict for Ukraine’s military. That attack underscored that defeating the separatist threat will be no easy task.

That is why a top priority for the new president must be a complete overhaul of the security sector, says Valeriy Chalyi, deputy director of the Razumkov Center, a non-government public policy research center in Kyiv. “The next president must protect the citizenry from terrorists and mercenaries. He must do this very quickly by building a stronger, modern army and revamping the intelligence services,” said Chalyi, who also is an advisor to Poroshenko.

Poroshenko vowed to end lawlessness by the rebel fighters. “Their goal is to turn Donbas into a Somalia where they would rule with the power of machine guns,” he told reporters after declaring his election victory. “l will never allow that to happen on the territory of Ukraine,” he said.

Too, Ukraine’s economy is teetering on a precipice. After mass protests forced out former President Viktor Yanukovych, the interim government that replaced him discovered that the state coffers were almost empty, and the country unable to make the $35 billion in loan payments it faced for the coming two years. The International Monetary Fund and other foreign governments and lenders have lent Ukraine the money to avoid default, but only on the condition that the government enforce painful austerity and reforms, including a higher gas price for Ukraine’s already broadly impoverished consumers. Ukraine’s average per capita GDP is $6,394 and average income a tenth of that in the neighboring Eurozone.

The economy will get worse; it is expected to shrink somewhere between 5 and 7 percent this year, throwing new masses of workers out of their jobs. Reversing that catastrophe and reviving an economy in free-fall will mean overcoming Ukraine’s rampant corruption. Of 177 countries surveyed by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, Ukraine is ranked 144th – on a par with Cameroon, Nigeria, the Central African Republic and Iran.

“For years billions of dollars went into the pockets of ‘the family’” – meaning Yanukovych and his cronies – “rather than  for reforms and government programs,” says Chalyi. “State funds must be used to build up the country and never again to enrich the chosen few.”

A third challenge for the new leader: become president of the entire country. A sense of national unity will need a common goal, which should be European integration, said Chalyi. “Currently this goal is a priority for a third of Ukrainian society, but it is not an objectionable goal for the rest of Ukrainians, therefore, this is something that the new president can use as a rallying cry for strengthening the unity of the country,” he said.

In confronting these core crises for Ukraine, the new president will face an unruly, dysfunctional parliament dominated by the fragmented remains of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. This parliament was elected under Yanukovych in a disputed 2012 election, and subsequently served as a rubber stamp for increasingly dictatorial laws that he sought to suppress dissent and freedoms of speech and assembly. In September 2013 and February this year, polls by the International Republican Institute found 80 percent of Ukrainians surveyed disapproving of the parliament’s performance (a cohort that dropped to 50 percent after the parliament approved Yanukovych’s ouster).

In declaring victory Sunday night, Poroshenko said he would order early parliamentary elections – a step that political scientist Oleksiy Haran said is essential to build consensus and restore public trust. “The president is no longer omnipotent, he must look for compromises, arrive at checks and balances with a prime minister, who relies heavily on a majority in parliament,” said Haran, a professor at the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. The new president must work with the government and head for early parliamentary elections because today’s parliament has no moral right to exist anymore.”

Overhauling the broken political system is a direct demand of the Maidan mass protest movement that ousted Yanukovych, explained Haran. Sunday’s vote was for a change that will build a functioning democracy and the rule of law. Election officials and others have said this election was fundamentally fairer than in the past because no incumbent was in office to direct state resources – money or the services of government agencies – toward a favored candidate.

The most important shift in political culture this election season may be that Ukrainians “are no longer looking for a savior” among the candidates, Haran said. “Poroshenko is a leader but he is not [seen as] a Messiah in the way that people thought of [Viktor] Yushchenko,” the president who emerged from the 2004 Orange Revolution pro-democracy movement. “People today understand that these presidential elections are only the beginning of deep and systemic changes that the country needs.”

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

Image: Petro Poroshenko tells reporters he will not negotiate with Russian-backed secessionist militias as a nearly complete vote count showed him winning Ukraine's presidency. REUTERS/David Mdzinarashvili