Petro Poroshenko: the Chocolate King walks onto a sticky wicket

Marko Bojcun

At a crowded polling station in Shevchenko District, Kyiv, 25 May

A crowded polling station in Shevchenko District, Kyiv on 25 May

Why Poroshenko won in the first round

Petro Poroshenko emerged as the clear winner of the presidential elections in the first round. With 95% of the votes counted, Poroshenko had 54% of the vote, followed in the distance by Yuliya Tymoshenko with 13% and a string of other candidates.

The electorate decisively rejected the two far right candidates – Oleh Tiahnybok from Svoboda (1.2%) and Dmytro Yarosh from the Right Sector (0.7%). Three reasons were given by political commentators in the mass media and by activists I talked to in Kyiv: first, far fewer Ukrainians identify with them ideologically than their prominence in the winter Maidans had led some Western observers to claim; second, in Western Ukrainian towns where Svoboda did have significant support and so gained control of local governments they quickly alienated their electors by behaving in the same corrupt and authoritarian ways as the other parties. And third, people just do not want their national leaders associated with far right or fascist politics of any sort.

The prevailing view is that Poroshenko was elected in the first round mainly because of the urgent need felt by the Ukrainian public to stop the war in the east. This was the feeling right across the political spectrum. Even some people on the left said they were suspending their misgivings about voting for Poroshenko, an oligarch, “a capitalist pig”, because there is a foreign intervention underway that needs to be stopped. No-one wanted the presidential elections to be drawn out over two rounds. They wanted to empower a leader with a democratic mandate who appeared most able negotiate an end to the war with the separatist movement and its sponsors in Russia. People also wanted to show by their turnout that the great majority continue to support an independent and united Ukraine.

The elections were severely disrupted in Donetsk and Luhansk where only around 6% of the eligible electorate of some 3.5 million actually voted. Opinion polls conducted over the telephone indicated that at some 28% of voters in these two oblasts were prepared to go and vote if there was a polling station open nearby. The rest were either too frightened to try or were opposed to casting a vote in these elections. But the majority of polling stations remained closed because their election committees had been threatened by the militias, their ballot papers were burned and their electronic equipment seized.

Poroshenko’s priority

Poroshenko’s election in the first round places enormous pressure on him to respond quickly to the high expectations placed on his shoulders. As soon as exit polls suggested he would win, Poroshenko’s team announced he would go to Donetsk as soon as possible. And already at 2.15 am on 26 May Poroshenko told journalists in Kyiv that he was ready to meet Putin:

“We can’t talk about serious security in our region without Russia’s involvement. We will find the right format and for sure there’ll be meeting with Putin”.

He went on to say that he was ready to negotiate with Russia on a bilateral basis or within the framework of the Geneva Accords – that is to include the USA and the EU in the talks as well.

The separatist movement replied to these initial overtures by declaring martial law in Donetsk, occupying part of Donetsk airport in the morning of 26 May and demanding that Ukrainian government forces holding the perimeter of the airport withdraw. Their move was clearly aimed at preventing Poroshenko from getting into Donetsk.

Ukrainians remain soberly realistic about the gravity of the challenge they face and what one man can possibly do about it, regardless how high his state office. Nor has it been forgotten that the Maidan fought to return the country to a parliamentary republic and to strip the presidency of executive powers. Poroshenko can do nothing on his own and he is well aware of it. He has already said that early elections to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) must be called to renew its popular legitimacy and to create an effective governing majority. But he hasn’t said anything since the election about constitutional reforms that will restore a parliamentary republic or decentralise real power down to regional and local governments. The latter is a key demand both of Russia and the moderate, non-separatist forces seeking autonomy for the Donbas.

Donbas separatism: attempted revanche of the old regime

The separatist movement in the east has become more radical and intractable since it first appeared three months go. Let us recall that his movement is at its core a revanche of the Yanukovych regime, a regime of the Ukrainian oligarchs that also served Russian state and big business interests in Ukraine. When it became clear in February 2014 that this regime had lost all legitimacy and authority across western and central Ukraine the Party of Regions (PR) in the eastern oblasts revived its Russian nationalist wing there in a desperate bid to avoid total defeat.

After his election to the presidency in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych had silenced the PR’s nationalist wing by co-opting its leaders into the party’s patronage and power sharing networks in government. But upon his ejection from Kyiv Russian nationalism was needed to spur a whole set of initiatives – People’s Fronts, anti-Maidan rallies, self defense militias. Their declared common aim was to protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian “fascists and banderites”, but their real aim was to prevent the spread of the Maidan movement into the east and its possible transformation into an-anti-bourgeois movement that could threaten the oligarchs’ property and power in their eastern industrial heartland. The dying Yanukovych regime clung to this platform in the east and started to rock it so as to upend the interim Kyiv government that came to power after Yanukovych fled Kyiv into Donetsk on 21 February.

The Russian state encouraged and supported the revanche of the old regime because Moscow was losing the guarantor of its own interests in the person and regime of Yanukovych. And its own oligarchs’ biggest investments and markets (as well as their main competitors) lay in the steel, chemical and petroleum processing industries in the eastern oblasts.

Russian sponsorship

The Russian state gave the emerging separatist movement international diplomatic cover, strengthened its voice though Russian mass media internationally and in Ukraine itself. It launched a powerful campaign to discredit the Kyiv government as a “fascist junta” and to legitimise the separatists as defenders of Russian speakers from an allegedly impending ethnic cleansing by the Right Sector. This campaign of cynical and racist lies proved effective enough to alienate many people in the eastern oblasts from the Maidan movement that was beginning to take hold in their region. At the same time the Russian campaign enthralled the apologists of Stalinism in the west, who now see in Putin the resurrection of their Great Leader and in the Ukrainian people the old bogeyman of bestial fascism: the Cold War reincarnated.

Russian interest

But the separatist campaign is needed above all to serve Moscow’s interest to undermine the Kyiv government. Putin wants Kyiv to bow to Russian imperialist ambitions and Russian transnational capitalist ambitions. Those ambitions were served first when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula, of great military significance and with a maritime shelf full of shale gas. They now require maintaining a long term destabilising force inside Ukraine.

So Moscow has awakened its sleeping agents in Ukrainian state institutions. It has channelled money, arms and veterans of counterinsurgency campaigns in the Caucasus into the eastern oblasts to give backbone and leadership to the separatists. It has mobilised its armed forces onto the border with Ukraine so as to maintain corridors through it for ongoing transport and communications. The last reported major operation by Russian forces on the border was to open a corridor to let the insurgents remove five truckloads of corpses from the overflowing morgue in Slovyansk.  The unburied dead threatened an epidemic on the separatists’ stronghold. Apparently this transport of death failed to get over the border into Russia.

The separatist campaign has grown in three months and taken effective military control over many government buildings, police stations, state security buildings, weapons stores, transport arteries and communications facilities. It acquired an initial social base by recruiting to its ranks local lumpen elements, unemployed youth and criminal gangs who were given firearms and paid to man the block-posts on the roads.

However, this local source of recruits dried up. The separatists’ military commander, the Russian citizen Igor Girkin (nom de guerre “Strelkov”) recently complained publicly that local residents were coming to take arms from his stores, only to return home to use them to protect their own communities, rather than to serve in the separatists’ militias. He declared that his forces would start to recruit women. But locals have proved hard to recruit and the most recent reinforcements to the separatists’ fighting units are mercenaries coming over the border from Russia. A truckload of them was filmed in Donetsk on 25 May as they arrived to take part in a public rally in defiance of the presidential elections. When asked by reporters they freely admitted they were veterans of campaigns in Chechnya.

Ukrainian state’s fragility and the spread of instability

The Kyiv government has itself contributed to building public support for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by its poorly conducted and at times bungled Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), It has cost lives of innocent civilian bystanders and damaged people’s homes and farms. Russian mass media has additionally and falsely charged the ATO with responsibility for some deaths and damage it had nothing to do with at all, including the deaths of its own Ukrainian troops. All this has generated more hostility among the local population towards the Kyiv government.

The war fighting in general has intimidated and effectively silenced everyone without a gun. An estimated ten thousand people from the east have been internally displaced, seeking safety in other parts of the country. Once open opponents of the separatist campaign there have been forced to go underground or to leave the region altogether. There are at least one hundred left wing activists among them from Donetsk and Luhansk who are currently taking refuge in Kyiv. And there is an effort underway to help others to get safe passage out.

People are still camping on the Kyiv Maidan

People are still camping on the Kyiv Maidan

The war in the east has generated enough anxiety and instability as to provoke the beginnings of a dangerous militarisation of Ukrainian society in other parts of the country. First, the Maidan in Kyiv remains in place as an encampment, with its inhabitants settled in for an indefinite period. The Maidan was meant to end after the presidential elections were over. Some people living there in tents plan to stay on, while otthers told me they will now strike camp and go to fight in the east.

Most of the members of the Kyiv Maidan’s self defense sotni (hundreds- 17 in all) have already gone into the Ukrainian armed forces and their sotni have been officially disbanded. But some have gone into various independent armed militia, who set up their own training camps and maintain their own check points on roads and near vital installations like dams. On the highway between Kyiv and Odessa there are numerous checkpoints where vehicles are routinely stopped and searched. These checkpoints are manned separately by the traffic police (DAI), or by special forces of the Interior Ministry or the State Security Service (spetsnazy), or by independent militias. The relationships between these forces is unclear and is never disclosed to the people being searched.

The independent militias are of different ideological persuasions ranging from outright support for the Kyiv government to outright rejection of it. Militias hostile to the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are being formed on their territories as well.  However, all such militia are united in the belief that the Kyiv government is losing control and becoming incapable of maintaining order. The belief justifies their assumption of local authority by force of arms.

Community self defense

One also hears reports about the beginnings of organised self defense of neighbourhoods, either by the communities themselves or by civilians patrolling together with the regular police. The low paid regular police traditionally get little respect from the public. They have long been regarded as petty bribe takers who break the law themselves. The upheavals of recent movements showed just how powerless they are to protect people from violence and intimidation. And so their authority has been diminished all the more.

However, some local communities are supporting the police in trying to maintain order. Some leftists in the West have dismissed the patrols in Mariupol and other eastern towns, which are composed of steelworkers and miners walking with the police, as merely an attempt by the employers to protect their own property from the separatists. This is quite untrue. The employers have supported such patrols, but that was after working class communities in Mariupol, Alchevsk and elsewhere initiated them on their own in defense of their neighbourhoods, well before their employers jumped in and agreed to support them.

With or without the employers’ agreement or co-operation, these communities urgently need to restore a peaceful and safe environment for people going to work in factories and fields, for children going to school, for those travelling the roads, making deliveries, and so on. And we in the West should find ways to support them because without the organised self defense of workers’ and farmers’ neighbourhoods there can be no collective political action by them either.

Ongoing economic decline

Then, of course, there is the deteriorating socio-economic situation in the country. Industrial wage earners and salaried employees have seen their real income drop between 30 and 50%. Wage arrears are mounting.  Industrial production has been disrupted. Exports, to which over half of the national economy is devoted, are not getting out of the country. Investment is at a standstill. There is a growing need for state social assistance, but the state is effectively bankrupt as it takes loans from the IMF just to cover the interest on outstanding debts.

Eventually such a process of economic disintegration will provoke a social explosion. Which way the pent up frustration and anger of the people is channelled will depend in great part on the political leadership and basic organisations available to the working classes. Those are not available, or only just appearing, which is one reason why there was no credible challenger to Petro Poroshenko coming from the left.

Still, a lot of people want to believe that Petro Poroshenko can turn the tide around. The record of his career, summarised below, suggests he could unite the Ukrainian oligarchs and take a common position from them into negotiations with Putin. But can Poroshenko unite the broad masses of Ukrainian citizens in the east and the west whose poverty and political marginality have up till now been the preconditions of the oligarchs’ wealth and power?

M_Id_471635_Petro_PoroshenkoPetro Poroshenko, born 1965, is a billionaire involved in the food processing, automobile and bus production industries. He owns Ukraine’s Channel Five television station. The biggest market for the “Chocolate King’s” confectionary products is in Russia, where he also owns a processing plant.

Well educated in law and international relations, he went into politics and was elected to parliament in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2012. He became Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council in 2005, head of the National Bank of Ukraine in 2007, foreign affairs minister in 2009 and minister of economic development and trade in 2012.

A distinguishing feature of his political career has been Poroshenko’s frequent movement between political parties and coalitions, He started in the United Social Democratic Party, then established the Solidarity party at the end of the 1990s, passed briefly through the Party of Regions and ended up with Viktor Yushchenko in the Our Ukraine coalition in 2001. He stayed there through the 2004 Orange Revolution and its subsequent governments, but after Viktor Yanukovych became president he went to serve in Prime Minister Azarov’s government in 2012.

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