EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Ukraine election opens door to reconciliation
, June 7, 2014
The recently-completed election for president of Ukraine, in which a pro-independence candidate, Petro Poroshenko, won a decisive majority in the first round, may pave the way for an end to the separatist strife which has threatened to tear the country apart.
Although not well known outside Ukraine, Mr Poroshenko has been a prominent businessman and politician in Ukraine for many years, and has served as a cabinet member in former governments.
A wealthy self-made businessman, Mr Poroshenko is politically a social democrat, and is regarded as more left-wing than his major challenger, Yulia Timoshenko, who was imprisoned under the regime of former president, Viktor Yanukovich.
After graduating in economics from Kiev State University in 1989, Mr Poroshenko began importing cacao beans, the principal raw ingredient of chocolate. Within years, he had taken over several chocolate manufacturing plants, which he consolidated into the Roshen Confectionery Corporation in 1996.
This grew to become the largest chocolate manufacturer in Ukraine, with significant markets in other countries, including Russia where he built a major plant.
Mr Poroshenko’s business interests spread to include several car and truck plants, a shipyard, and a TV station, Channel 5, which has a reputation for its balanced presentation of news and current affairs.
He became involved in politics when elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 1998. In 2004, he supported the Orange Revolution, a series of protests directed against suspected electoral fraud and voter intimidation in the country’s presidential election of that year.
He was head of the council of Ukraine’s National Bank from 2007 to 2012, Foreign Minister during 2009-10, and Minister for Economic Development and Trade from 2012 to 2014, under Ukraine’s then pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Mr Poroshenko’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty aroused the ire of Moscow. Last July, Moscow banned the importation of Roshen chocolates, and in March 2014, the Roshen factory in Russia was closed completely.
After the Ukrainian Parliament voted to depose the Russian-aligned Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 and called a new election for the post, Poroshenko stood for election, and received a majority of votes cast.
Although the poll was disrupted in parts of eastern Ukraine, where militias loyal to Moscow destroyed polling stations, there is no suggestion that this affected the outcome of the election.
In fact, days before the election — when opinion polls were predicting that Petro Poroshenko would win — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin indicated that he would accept the result of the election, and work with the new president.
This was a significant change from his previous position, which was to reject the poll and demand the reinstatement of the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, now living in exile in Russia.
“I wouldn’t want to think that this is the start of a new Cold War,” Putin said, adding that this would not be in anyone’s interests.
“I don’t think that will happen,” he said. “People try to stick us with that label, that we’re trying to recreate an empire, the Soviet Union, to subject everyone to our influence. That’s absolutely untrue.”
However, there is no doubt that the Russian government, hiding behind the façade of civilian militias, orchestrated the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and equally was behind the military-style attacks in eastern Ukraine.
Although the Russian president’s closest colleagues have been targeted by U.S. and EU sanctions over their involvement in the Ukraine crisis, the real damage has been done to Russia’s economy.
Despite the income from Russia’s exports of natural gas and oil to Western Europe, Russia’s economy has stalled, with growth falling from about 2.5 per cent last year to a forecast 0.2 per cent in 2014. The Economist recently reported that Russia’s stock market has fallen 20 per cent this year, while the rouble has declined by 8 per cent against the U.S. dollar.
Russia’s problems are compounded by a flight of capital, which, in the first quarter of 2014, reached about $60 billion, almost as much as in all of 2013.
Putin’s problems have been compounded by the steps announced by European countries to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Among these measures are the construction of new gas terminals and the importing of surplus natural gas from the United States.
While these initiatives will take years to complete, they will eventually lead to a reduction in Russian gas exports and less money for the struggling Russian economy. These developments are bound to influence events in Ukraine.
Petro Poroshenko is a man of personal courage, having visited Sevastopol in Crimea last March — when the area was already under Russian control — in a futile effort to urge people not to vote for independence from Ukraine.
After voting in the presidential election, he said that his immediate task would be to visit the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, where most of the polling booths were closed due to separatist activity. His first role, he said, was to “end war and bring peace”.
We can only hope that he succeeds.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.