On May 25 Ukraine held presidential elections to stabilize the country and resolve a serious political crisis. Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya summarizes the outcome of these elections and analyzes the political challenges that face the president-elect.

 

 

In the Ukrainian presidential elections held on May 25, the main question was whether Poroshenko—the leading candidate, according to opinion polls— would win in the first round. A resounding victory in the first round would mean that the Ukrainian population was ready to consolidate around a candidate. The second round would make the legitimacy of the winner less obvious, while the risks of disruptions to the voting would still remain high.

On May 25, Ukraine made a clear choice in favor of Poroshenko, who got 54.71% of the votes. Moreover, according to the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, Poroshenko led in all regions of the country. In the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, he received over 30% of the vote, and in the western regions of Lviv, Vinnytsia, and Ivano-Frankivsk, as well as in Transcarpathia and Kiev, he enjoyed even wider support, receiving around 60 to 70% of the vote.

In many respects, Poroshenko is indeed the most suitable candidate for most of the population. A successful businessman (Forbes estimates his fortune at $1.6 billion) and the owner of a confectionery business, Poroshenko entered politics as part of the team of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and actively participated in the events of the Orange Revolution in 2004. For some time he was in charge of the National Security and Defense Council and then the Foreign Ministry in the government of Yulia Tymoshenko. Nevertheless, for a long time, Poroshenko remained on the periphery of big politics, becoming a real political star only last year during the heated debates with Russia over whether Ukraine should sign an association agreement with the European Union. Poroshenko was personally involved in the negotiations with President Putin’s adviser Sergei Glazyev, who threatened Ukraine with collapse and degradation in the event that it chose to move toward European integration. It was at that time that Poroshenko became the target of Russian “sanctions”: products made by his company, Roshen, were banned in Russia. Since the beginning of the mass protests in the Maidan, Poroshenko has sympathized with supporters of European integration but has kept his distance.

The outcome of the elections suggests that Poroshenko enjoys a high level of support among the population as well as among the political elite. His main rivals not only conceded that his victory was honest but expressed willingness to help him in his work as the head of state. Runner-up Yulia Tymoshenko noted that the elections were “clean” and graciously acknowledged her defeat. Leader of the nationalist “right sector” Dmitry Yarosh, who finished in eleventh place, also expressed his willingness to help the president resolve the crisis in the eastern part of the country.

Based on the election results, we can draw another conclusion: fears that the western Ukrainian electorate has been substantially radicalized turned out to be greatly exaggerated, just like the speculations about the country being deeply divided. The nationalist-leaning electorate did not vote for Tymoshenko or Yarosh. Instead, they voted for Oleg Lyashko, a populist leader of the Radical Party of Ukraine who got about 8% of the vote.

Ukraine is at the beginning of a difficult road toward establishing statehood, which inevitably will be a test both for the population and for the country’s political elite.

When it comes to Russia, Moscow’s position on Ukraine remains highly controversial. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border and essentially recognized the legitimacy of the presidential election, stating at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum: “We also want things to somehow quiet down eventually, and we will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people.”

On the other hand, in practice, the Russian policy toward Ukraine turns out to be less constructive. Bad news continues to flow from the Kremlin, which remains a key force of destabilization in the country. Two key issues can be singled out. The first one is the situation in the eastern regions. Despite Putin’s call to postpone the referenda, this was not done. Moreover, within the separatist camp, it was the more radical forces, which are more closely associated with Russia, that prevailed. As a result, the elections in the east were held in an essentially military environment. It was practically impossible to ensure the safe operation of the polling stations.

Thus, having recognized the legitimacy of the elections, Moscow at the same time made an effort to complicate the elections in the eastern provinces. This move can be interpreted in different ways: as a conscious refusal to put pressure on the separatists by giving them carte blanche or as a tactical move aimed at making the next president’s job even more difficult. However, so far, one thing is clear: Moscow does not intend to stop playing the separatist card, and speculation about the eastern populations’ fear of radical nationalists, especially those from “the right sector,” seems likely to continue.

The second key issue is the gas supply. The Kremlin has demanded that Ukraine pay arrears of $3.2 billion to Russia. Kiev has refused to pay, urging Moscow to engage in a dialogue. Moscow, in turn, has demonstrated its willingness to act decisively. It is important to note that despite the difficult relations with Russia, Poroshenko has said that Ukraine will continue negotiations to normalize the situation. However, he has also identified two fundamental aspects of his position that are unlikely to be met with approval in Moscow. First, he has said that Ukraine “will never recognize the illegitimate referendum and will never accept the occupation of the Crimea.” Second, he has definitely set his mind on the integration of Ukraine into Europe.

The presidential elections in Ukraine are an important step toward resolving the country’s political crisis. However, the new president will face some tough political challenges. First, it is necessary that parliamentary elections be held early. However, this step is opposed by the majority of Ukrainian political forces, and Poroshenko does not have his own faction in the Parliament. Second, constitutional reform is needed. According to Poroshenko, a new basic law based on the Polish model will be presented in the near future. Third, it is essential to establish a dialogue between the eastern and western parts of the country. It is in this area that Poroshenko will have to avoid becoming a hostage to the Kremlin’s geopolitical games while at the same time not alienating the population. Ukraine is at the beginning of a difficult road toward establishing statehood, which inevitably will be a test both for the population and for the country’s political elite.

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