Ukrainians handed chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko a commanding victory in its presidential election on Sunday. This was an election that should have been marked with euphoria and huge enthusiasm, but the prevailing mood after the results were announced was of cautious optimism. A revolution which Ukrainians launched for more freedom and the right to decide their future now lies undermined with their powerful leader cracking the whip. Poroshenko, who is a pro-European billionaire, has his cup full and will have to struggle hard to bring the country back to normality and economic progress. It’s an irony of the revolution that an oligarch like him is in power as he belongs to a class which the Ukrainian revolutionaries wanted banished from politics. Still they rallied overwhelmingly behind him, with the fervent hope that the burly 48-year-old can rescue the nation from the brink of bankruptcy, civil war and dismemberment by its former Soviet masters in the Kremlin.
Though fighting still rages, the situation has improved a lot. Invasion remains no major threat, the extreme federalization which Moscow earlier wanted has faded and the separatists in the east have lost some of their momentum. The future will depend on the policies and tactics of the new president. But the options aren’t many. With Russia determined to tighten its grip and Ukrainians thirsting for freedom, Poroshenko will have to think before every move. He said yesterday that he rejected any talks with ‘terrorists’ and said a robust military campaign in the east should be able to put down a separatist revolt in ‘a matter of hours’. He showed no sign of heeding Moscow’s demand that he call off the operation against rebels in the east. “Protecting people is one of the functions of the state,” he said, promising to invest more in the army.
A direct fight with Moscow will not help Poroshenko win this battle. He will have to engage in dialogue, however tough it might seem, both with the rebels in the east and their masters in Moscow. His most urgent task is finding a modus Vivendi with the giant neighbour that has seemed poised to carve Ukraine up since mass protests in Kiev toppled a pro-Russian president
in February. Sorting out a dispute over the supply of Russian gas to Ukraine will also be high on the agenda.
The new government in Kiev can heave a sigh of relief temporarily because Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month described eastern Ukraine as ‘New Russia’, has made more accommodating noises in recent days. He promised at the weekend that Moscow would respect the will of Ukrainians, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated that promise on Monday in saying Russia was ready for dialogue with Poroshenko.