The Free Press, Mankato, MN


May 28, 2014

Our View: Ukraine has hope but not certainty

Why it matters: Russia's Putin could see the election as a face-saving exit from a tenuous situation

The election of “candy man” Petro Poroshenko as president of Ukraine holds promise for an end to the east European country’s upheaval but no certainty.

The confectionary tycoon won handily during the weekend with nearly 56 percent of the vote unofficially, and he promised to move closer to the European Union while restoring peace in his country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would respect the outcome of the election but didn’t go so far as promising to recognize it. If Poroshenko cracks down on the insurgency in the east, Putin may rethink his position. Pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings in the eastern region and in some regions the rebels blocked the elections. Analysts have said Putin could use the lack of voting in the east as a reason for calling the election illegitimate.

Poroshenko has said he is against the “occupation of Crimea,” referring to the annexation in March by Moscow. And he has said, “People with weapons will be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities.”

But the new president has a history of working with Russia. He’s a businessman with manufacturing plants in Russia. Poroshenko is more than a businessman. He has served in a cabinet under former president Viktor Yanukovich as former national security council chief, foreign minister and trade minister. And he has promised new parliamentary elections to address widespread corruption.

The task is formidable. Since the fall of Yanukovich, the constitution has been changed and the president has less power, sharing duties now with the prime minister and the parliament. And NATO nations have been reluctant to impose any more strong sanctions against Russia for its incursions, and there is a split in the Ukraine among its people on moving too closely into the EU.

Poroshenko must tame the bear while understanding he may get little help from the West. He could probably allay some of Putin’s fears by dispelling rumors that the Ukraine will join NATO and he could, as some analysts suggest, say that attempted repeal of Russian-language rights was a mistake. And, of course, it would be in Putin’s best interests to use the election of Poroshenko as a face-saving move to ease the tensions that has caused economic life more difficult in Russia.

There is genuine hope that this election will help ease the conflict in eastern Europe, but the final outcome rests more with Putin than with Poroshenko. NATO would be better off waiting for concrete changes by Putin before easing up on any sanctions, and Poroshenko’s first move should be to ensure Putin gets that opportunity.

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