Democratic Transitions Elections Russia Ukraine


April 24, 2019

How history will judge Poroshenko

By Alexander J. Motyl

The majority of Ukraine’s voters and pundits detest President Petro Poroshenko who lost his chance at a second term on April 21. However, history will prove them wrong and judge him as Ukraine’s most successful leader.

Indeed, Poroshenko will go down in the annals as the man who consolidated Ukraine’s state, nation, democracy, and the market; who pivoted Ukraine toward the West and away from Russia; and who saved Ukraine from the Donbas thugs, Russian mercenaries, and Russian regular troops commandeered by Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin.

Historians will note that Poroshenko built an army and fought the Russians and their proxies to a standstill. That he reformed the regular police. That he cleaned up the deeply corrupt banking sector, stabilized the currency, and rationalized energy prices. That he oversaw reforms of education and medicine and a revival of Ukrainian language and culture. That he won independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. That he began fixing Ukraine’s dilapidated infrastructure, promoted the country’s energy independence, and shifted trade away from Russia to the West. That he devolved authority and resources to local government and allowed civil society and independent media to thrive. And that he reduced the institutional and structural sources of corruption.

Above all, they’ll remember that Poroshenko won a fair and free election in 2014 and then, after losing a fair and free election in 2019, graciously conceded, thereby demonstrating that Ukraine’s democracy is no longer transitional, but consolidated.

Poroshenko’s weaknesses—his failure to confront the corrupt elite, limit the power of the oligarchs, and speak the truth to the people—will appear as mere personal peccadillos after a few years of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s rule. If Zelenskiy succeeds as a reformer—and the chances of that are exceptionally slim—historians will view Poroshenko as the man who made Zelenskiy’s reforms both politically and institutionally possible. If Zelenskiy proves to be, as many critics suspect, a puppet of Ihor Kolomoisky or some other even more nefarious oligarch, then Poroshenko’s five years in office will positively gleam in comparison. He’ll be seen as the president who tried to curb corruption, but was then succeeded by a comedian who backtracked and let wrongdoing flourish. Ironically, it’s a win-win situation for Poroshenko.

The same holds true for Poroshenko’s allegedly unique propensity to avoid telling the truth. Even if it’s as egregious as his critics claim, Ukrainians will soon learn something they should have learned close to thirty years ago: that all policymakers lie, because lying is at the heart of policymaking, especially democratic policymaking. Historians will also compare Poroshenko’s mendacity to that of his predecessors and of his successor. Any half-way objective assessment would find that he scores no worse, and probably far better than Viktor Yanukovych, Viktor Yushchenko, Leonid Kuchma, and Leonid Kravchuk. Unsurprisingly, Zelenskiy’s willingness to avoid telling the truth has grown exponentially since his first-round win on March 31. That trait will only grow in prominence as the media assail him, his erstwhile supporters express disappointment with his lack of reform, and the reality of governance strikes him with full force as he realizes that a country is no television program.

Naturally, Zelenskiy’s supporters will deny the possibility of Poroshenko’s positive appraisal by history. At the moment, basking as they are in their landslide victory, their skepticism looks justified. But history and historians work in funny ways and future reappraisals rarely match contemporary appraisals. Who knows? Yanukovych was chased out of Kyiv in 2004 and then returned in triumph in 2010. Don’t be surprised if Poroshenko makes a comeback in 2024 after Zelenskiy proves to be a bust.

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

Image: Ukraine's President and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko attends a policy debate with his rival, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the National Sports Complex Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko