Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 January 2020

Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko is taking on a poisoned inheritance

The unrest that has roiled the country for the past few months is far from settled – and Poroshenko's job isn't an easy one.
Pro-Russian fighters of the Vostok (East) battalion rip apart a Ukrainian flag in the eastern city of Donetsk in May 29. The new president Petro Poroshenko faces a divided country in turmoil. Viktor Drachev / AFP
Pro-Russian fighters of the Vostok (East) battalion rip apart a Ukrainian flag in the eastern city of Donetsk in May 29. The new president Petro Poroshenko faces a divided country in turmoil. Viktor Drachev / AFP

Near Kiev’s Maidan, ground zero of the revolution that swept Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich from power in February, claiming over a hundred lives in the process, young women handed out campaign brochures, a mayoral hopeful held an impromptu town hall meeting, and presidential candidates smiled thoughtfully from flyers stuffed into mailboxes. Opposite a building wrapped in a giant yellow-and-blue banner – “Ukraine is united”, it read – a bleached blonde presided over a Falun Gong meditation session. Throngs of young people, en route to a football match, poured past the tents where some of the Maidan protesters had camped out since winter, past the barricades they had built to protect against police raids, the heaps of tyres and the portraits of the demonstrators killed in the fighting. Members of Right Sector, a nationalist militia, strutted about in military fatigues, handguns tucked into their holsters. 

It was election season in Ukraine’s capital, and it was the season of post-revolution, confusion and turmoil.

On May 24, a day before they headed to the polls to elect a new president, Ukrainians were holding out hope – that the system of graft, thuggery and clientelism that had reached its most vulgar expression under Yanukovich was on its way out, and that their new leader, whoever he or she turned out to be, could pull the country back from the brink of war. Some believed it was already too late.

Haide Rizayeva, a Tatar activist, had come to Kiev a few months ago from Crimea after the pro-Russian authorities installed there in late February blacklisted her and barred her from re-entering. To date, several thousand people have fled the peninsula since the takeover. Some have been given free housing around Kiev. Others, possibly thanks to a government official with an acute sense of poetic justice, have been put up at Yanukovich’s abandoned estate, a sprawling monument to the former leader’s extravagance and the corruption off which it fed, just north of the city.   

Rizayeva and a few others, however, were living out of a green military tent set up in the Maidan. Its name, “Crimea”, was painted in white letters atop the entrance. A plastic kiddie pool and a few beach chairs had been placed outside: a humorous, poignant reminder, I was told, of the Black Sea and of home. 

Rizayeva didn’t place much faith in a negotiated solution with Russia and the eastern insurgents, she said. Neither did Sergei, a young man who kept her company. “You know how this is going to end,” he quipped. “A new president goes to Moscow, more debates, more negotiations and more empty talk. 

“It’s too late for all this,” he said. “It’s war now, not politics.”

Wherever it appeared, the optimism unleashed in the run-up to the election had been palpably cautious. Ukraine won its independence in 1991, amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, 23 years and a number of squandered opportunities later, Ukrainians had learnt not to expect miracles. 

Practically everyone on the streets of Kiev planned to vote, and practically everyone was poised for a let-down of one sort or another. Between appeasing the revolutionaries in the Maidan, the nationalists in the country’s west and the ethnic Russians in its east, breathing life into a crippled economy, implementing austerity measures to meet the demands of international lenders and resolving a dispute with Russia over the price of gas imports, Yanukovich’s successor faced a seemingly insurmountable mountain of challenges.

“There’s no chance we’ll end up with a president who’ll be good for the whole country, who’ll solve all of our problems,” Alex Rigarash, a designer, told me inside the Kiev metro. “He has to take unpopular decisions and that’s why he’ll disappoint even those who voted for him.”

The irony of seeing someone like Petro Poroshenko emerge as the election front-runner – and eventual winner – was lost on no one. Poroshenko, who served as minister in two different administrations, including Yanukovich’s, and who amassed a fortune of roughly $1.6 billion (Dh5.88bn) through his confectionery business, had endeared himself to many Ukrainians by backing the Maidan protests from day one, pledging to revive the country’s relationship with the EU, and taking a tough line with Moscow. Still, to the people who had risked life and limb in the Maidan, it felt awkward, to put it mildly, to see a revolution that aspired to break the nexus between power and big money culminate in the election of an old guard politician and oligarch rolled into one.  

On November 21 last year, the day when Yanukovich’s government reneged on a promise to sign an association agreement with the EU, Mustafa Nayem, a journalist with Hromadske TV, posted a message on Facebook calling on Ukrainians to descend on the Maidan in protest. A few hundred turned up, then a few hundred more. It was the beginning of a three-month cycle of unrest and, as such, the beginning of Yanukovich’s end. 

The veterans of the Maidan are right to sense that their revolution remains a work in progress, says Nayem. And they are right to feel uneasy that the man poised to take Ukraine into the future is a part of its troubled past. 

“Live differently,” says Nayem, repeating Poroshenko’s campaign slogan, emphasising the last word with a smirk. “It’s quite ridiculous to hear that from a guy who’s been in politics for the last 15 years, who’s been doing business with different governments.”

Yet whatever Poroshenko’s faults or attributes might be, says Nayem, the faith Ukrainians will place in him is much less important than the faith they’ve begun to place in themselves. The legacy of the Maidan is “that those in power understand they can’t govern alone, that they have to listen to us,” he says. “This is not revolution, but this is change.”

Nayem is careful to point out that Poroshenko is not a product of the Maidan, but of a “war with Russia”. And so, he says, at least for the time being, what matters is not whether he will please the anti-Yanukovich protesters, but whether he will manage to quell the fighting in Ukraine’s east, compel Russia to break with the rebels and keep the country together. 

It will not be an easy task. 

In the second half of March, I had travelled to Donetsk, Ukraine’s fifth largest city, more than 400 miles south-east of Kiev. The local separatist movement, previously dormant, had been stirred by news of Russia’s imminent annexation of the Crimea. Resentment towards the new Kiev government ran deep – Yanukovich, a former Donetsk governor, had been a corrupt criminal, the thinking went, but he was our corrupt criminal, and a democratically elected leader to boot. As Russian troops massed on the other side of the border, less than 65 kilometres away, the separatists held small protests outside the regional administration building and vigils in Lenin Square, and collected signatures for a Crimea-like referendum. They were heartened, enjoyed some degree of support on the ground, but appeared too weak to make a decisive move. 

By the time I returned, roughly two months later, all that had changed. The separatists were no longer gathering outside the local government building. Having stormed it in early April, they were now inside, running a fiefdom they’d dubbed the Donetsk People’s Republic or DPR. They were also more numerous and armed to the teeth. In the countryside and in neighbouring Luhansk, deadly clashes between the insurgents and Ukrainian troops had begun multiplying, claiming about 200 lives. The few pro-Ukraine activists whom I’d interviewed in Donetsk back in March had left town, alarmed by a spate of assaults and kidnappings, as well as an unrelenting campaign of intimidation.

The day I arrived, a pro-separatist rally was about to get under way in the city centre. The guest speakers, the rebel leaders, had not yet shown up, but a small crowd had begun to gather on the fringes of Lenin Square. A Russian nationalist anthem blared from a set of amplifiers set up nearby. 

“We are scattered ’round the world, like God’s former chosen folk,” its lyrics went. “We are Russian, we are Russian, we are Russian … We’re done talking with the enemy … We will wake yet again, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus.”

The rally-goers sang along. 

The highlight arrived just over an hour later, once the crowd had swelled to a few thousand. About five or six trucks, each of them loaded with men in military fatigues, parked opposite the square. The men, a few of whom readily identified themselves as “volunteers” from Chechnya who had decided to join the insurgents, leapt down from the vehicles, formed a line, cocked their machine guns, and fired a roaring salute into the clear Donetsk sky. They left, accompanied by chants of “thank you” and “heroes”, almost as suddenly as they had ­arrived.  

As the rally drew to a close, four middle-aged women began handing out blank sheets of paper, pleading with crowd members to use them to pen letters to the interim government in Kiev. “I wished them a coffin,” said Yevgenia, a pensioner, asked what message she sought to convey to the authorities. “This is Russia,” she said, pointing to the ground beneath her feet. “They have no business here.”

On May 11, Yevgenia had voted in a referendum that the separatists had organised to determine the Donetsk region’s future status, and which western governments had dismissed as a sham. She had voted in favour of independence and loose union with Russia, she said. (The rebels announced that 89 per cent of Donetsk residents voted likewise. Earlier opinion polls put support for independence among locals at about 30 per cent.) With the pro-Russian Yanukovich ousted, disgraced and exiled, replaced by what Yevgenia and the separatists called a “fascist junta”, Donetsk and the rest of the south-east, she said, “had no future in Ukraine”. In Putin’s Russia, she argued, “at least we’d pay less for gas”. 

It was hard to remember, amid the music and the machine gun salvoes, that this, May 25, was the day of the presidential elections. 

Except, of course, that in Donetsk there’d been no voting to begin with. Over the preceding week, armed men had popped up at polling stations across the city, confiscating election materials, smashing ballot boxes and roughing up election officials. A notice posted on the separatists’ website urged sympathisers to denounce anyone found attempting to vote. The day before the elections, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a democracy watchdog, confirmed it was withdrawing its monitors from the region in the face of what it called “an atmosphere of terror”.

Some, like the people in Lenin Square, couldn’t care less. They had already cast their lot with Russia and Putin, they said, and they had no one to vote for in any case. Some, fearing for their safety, preferred to stay home. Some were simply indifferent. Quite a few, however, tried to vote, only to find each and every polling station in Donetsk closed. 


With the rebels growing increasingly brazen, Poroshenko had urged Ukrainians to hand him a convincing first-round victory. The idea, he argued, was to prevent a run-off and three more weeks of uncertainty. “If the election is not over in the first round, the second round might not take place,” he said just a few days ahead of the vote. “The level of destabilisation might be such that we will have to fight for ­legitimacy.” 

He would get his wish. On the evening of May 25, exit polls had Poroshenko well past the 50 per cent mark, and miles ahead of his next rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. He would eventually secure 54.7 per cent of the vote. Ukraine had a democratically elected president. 

The celebrations would be short-lived. On Monday morning, Poroshenko and the rest of Ukraine awoke to unsettling news. The Donetsk insurgents had captured the city’s international airport. By Monday afternoon, the Ukrainian army had struck back.

Near the airport itself, the summer heat and tree pollen mixed with the sound of gunshots, the howl of fighter jets overhead and clouds of smoke. The separatists, having holed up in the terminal, traded fire with Ukrainian paratroopers. A pair of trucks, one of which I recognised from the previous day’s pro-Russian rally, came to a halt opposite a Peugeot dealership about one-and-a-half kilometres from the airport. Several dozen men, armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, spilt out, taking cover behind a small patch of trees. Frightened bystanders lined the Kievskiy Prospekt, the street connecting the area to the city centre.

By the end of the day, the Ukrainian forces were said to be in control of the airport. At least 50 rebels lay dead – 33 of those killed in the fighting turned out to be Russian citizens.

Poroshenko was sworn in as president last Saturday. In his inauguration speech, he called on the insurgents to lay down their weapons, offering amnesty to all those “who did not have blood on their hands”.

Although the rebels have not taken him up on the offer, they have not ruled out negotiations, so long as these take place with Russia’s mediation.

Therein, possibly, lies the crux of the problem. Poroshenko’s main interlocutor appears not to be the rebel movement itself, but its sponsor: a Russia inclined to do whatever it takes to retain leverage over Ukraine and bring it back into its orbit.

“You might be able to negotiate and find a political solution with these people,” says Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, referring to the home-grown separatists, “but not when there is interference from Russia.” 

According to Haran, Ukraine’s government needs to take a two-pronged approach. First, he says, it needs to offer the Russian-speaking east, including Donetsk, some degree of autonomy. Second, it shouldn’t shy away from “decisive military measures” against the insurgents. “Putin understands the language of force.” 

Since Poroshenko’s inauguration, talks have been under way in Kiev between Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, but these appear to be only in their initial stages. Negotiations are also continuing to resolve a dispute over Ukrainian payments for Russian gas.

Russia can play a mediating role in the conflict, says Haran, but it cannot be allowed to use it – and stoke it – to extract concessions from Kiev, particularly regarding the degree of self-rule for Donetsk and the rest of the south-east. “Russia,” he says, “cannot be in a position to decide what kind of state Ukraine will become.”

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance ­writer living in Istanbul.


Updated: June 12, 2014 04:00 AM