Poroshenko: Legitimacy, Challenges, Actions and Opportunities

Poroshenko has very little chance of being president a year from now. He is more likely to turn into yet another transitional figure to be sacrificed to the geopolitical interests of foreign players and the greed of his domestic pseudo-supporters.

President of the Center for Systematic Analysis and Forecasting and Rossiya Segodnya contributor Rostislav Ishchenko analyzes the problems facing Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko.

Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine by a margin so close to the exit polls that some Ukrainian journalists have dubbed him “the exit poll president.” But that doesn’t change the fact that Ukraine is in the grips of civil war. For the president-elect, political and economic stabilization is no less urgent a challenge than defending his own legitimacy. Moreover, the resolution of many pressing issues depends on the foreign policy positioning of the Ukrainian government.


Poroshenko’s legitimacy outside of Ukraine was secure long before the first ballot was cast. In late February, the United States and the European Union were already hailing the forthcoming elections as transparent, democratic and fair. After the release in late Match of several polls showing skyrocketing support for Poroshenko, Washington and Brussels treated him as the de facto winner. It is no accident that Ukrainian, Russian and Western experts have been considering scenarios in which Poroshenko is president rather than other candidates.

Russia’s recognition of the election results presents a problem, of course, but it is not as urgent as it may seem. President Vladimir Putin has already announced Russia’s intention to work with the new Ukrainian leadership in the same manner it has worked with the Yatsenyuk-Turchynov transitional government that came before. While refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Maidan government, Russia maintained working contacts, recognizing its de facto control over most of the country’s territory and surviving political and administrative institutions.

This kind of working relationship will suit Poroshenko fairly well initially, as it will allow him to claim that Russia has recognized the election results and to leverage this fact to achieve formal recognition as Ukraine’s only legitimate president. Future developments will depend less on Poroshenko’s actions than on the domestic political situation in Ukraine and the positions of the key geopolitical players that have been drawn into the Ukraine crisis (Russia, the United States and the EU).

So far Russia has treated both the authorities in Kiev and the southeast as equally legitimate/illegitimate. Moscow’s position is rooted in the Ukrainian constitution, according to which the president can be removed from office only by illness, death, impeachment, or resignation. Therefore, in the eyes of Russia, Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s legitimate president until his term ends in March 2015. Moscow may revise this position, but for the time being neither developments in Ukraine, nor relations with the West can justify such major concessions. While Putin often makes unexpected moves, the position of the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry remains firm for now.

Poroshenko’s domestic legitimacy faces much more serious challenges. First, there is the de jure legitimacy of President Yanukovych. After Poroshenko’s inauguration Ukraine will have two presidents. Second, the elections were called by people who perpetrated an armed coup and violated the civil rights and freedoms of their political opponents. Media outlets were censored. Politicians and activists from the opposing camp were harassed with intimidation, arrest, destruction of property, and threats against them and their families. Some were beaten and even killed. On May 2, in Odessa, large numbers of people were mowed down in the streets. This takes a special kind of cynicism and barbaric cruelty.

Third, the elections took place during a civil war. The army was deployed against the population in at least two regions that had slipped from Kiev’s grasp, despite the fact that the Ukrainian constitution allows the army to be mobilized on domestic soil only in an emergency or under martial law, in which case elections are suspended. So the elections violated not only the constitution but the fundamental law on the basis of which they were ostensibly held.

The legitimacy of the elections in Ukraine is highly questionable, and so any potential opponent of Poroshenko (not only the self-defense fighters in the southeast but also his own associates) could refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy. In fact, growing political and economic tensions, sharp divisions in the camp of Kiev’s transitional authorities (for example, between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko) and the shaky popular support for the elected president may guarantee that his own associates disavow his legitimacy eventually.


To put to rest the questions about his foreign and domestic legitimacy, Poroshenko will have to parry a number of internal and external challenges facing Ukraine.

First, he must reestablish Kiev’s control over the entire country and put an end to the armed conflict. Many of his voters supported him as a potential peacemaker that could stop the unfolding of the civil war.

Second, Poroshenko must stabilize the country economically, not just politically. Living standards are falling and the economy has deteriorated to the point where entire industries may be beyond recovery. In winter the country will face the threat of famine and destruction of utility infrastructure in large cities. Economic stabilization, tolerable living standards and minimal confidence in the future are no less important demands of the electorate than ending the war.

Third, Poroshenko must establish effective mechanisms for exercising his powers. Ukraine is divided not only into the rebellious southeast and the west that is trying to suppress the dissent. Actual power in the country is held by people who control illegal armed groups and only on the territory where they operate.

Thus, with the help of several private battalions, oligarch Igor Kolomoisky now controls not only the Dnepropetrovsk Region (where he was appointed governor) but also the Zaporozhya and Odessa regions. His fighters have repeatedly tried to take over cities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, while Kolomoisky himself announced his intention to merge them with the Dnepropetrovsk Region.

Dnepropetrovsk is the largest but by no means the only principality in Ukraine today. Just a week ago the leaders of the Ivano-Frankovsk Region (one of Galicia’s three most reliable regions in the opinion of the current authorities) threatened to declare independence unless the Kiev-appointed police chief was recalled. In fact, the orders of the Kiev authorities are carried out only to the extent that they conform to the plans of the leaders of the armed groups that control the situation in the provinces. The Kiev authorities are fighting the Donbass militiamen but not the neo-Nazi party Freedom, which essentially controls the west of the country, nor Kolomoisky who is building his own fiefdom in central Ukraine. The only explanation is that Freedom and Kolomoisky are more acceptable to Kiev whereas the self-defense groups in the southeast are an ideological enemy.

Clearly, unless Poroshenko can reestablish Kiev’s control over security agencies and restore law-enforcement bodies (the scattered and demoralized remnants of the army and the police), the reach of his power won’t extend beyond the walls of his office.

Poroshenko’s success in confronting domestic political challenges will largely depend on his foreign policy positioning. And on this front, he faces no less daunting questions for which there are no clear answers.

To achieve a durable peace with the southeast, Poroshenko must start by entering into direct talks with the Lugansk and Donetsk republics, thereby recognizing them de facto, agreeing to pull back troops from these areas, starting negotiations on Ukraine’s federalization and accepting a weak confederation in exchange for the federalists’s agreeing to preserve formal unity. But this will not be enough. He will also have to accommodate Russia’s interests by maintaining Ukraine’s neutral status, recognizing Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation, ensuring the transit of Russian gas to Europe and paying the $3.5 billion Ukraine owes for gas.

Actions and opportunities

Judging by Poroshenko’s statements following his election win, he is well aware of the scale and urgency of the challenges he faces. He spoke about the possibility of a ceasefire in the southeast, which would enable him at least to start talks with the self-defense forces. He also spoke about early parliamentary elections, which should give him a more cooperative majority and full control of the government. Put together, these measures will greatly enhance his legitimacy and allow him to get tough with “freelance” militants and the feudal-oligarchic barons holding sway in the provinces. Finally, Poroshenko promised to come to terms with Russia.

The plan is the right one, but it’s still unrealistic. Not only has Poroshenko refused to endorse talks with federalist leaders without preconditions, he has emphasized that preserving Ukraine as a unitary state remains his overarching goal. He has also promised to “return” Crimea to Ukraine.

It is no surprise that in return the self-defense forces have expressed “readiness” to negotiate but only on the withdrawal of government troops from their territory and recognition of their independence. I’m confident that Russia won’t discuss the return of Crimea. In effect, Poroshenko’s agenda for talks precludes the possibility of success.

Obviously, Poroshenko cannot take a more constructive position because the neo-Nazi commanders were the only real armed forces standing behind the February coup and his election. They won’t welcome concessions to the southeast, not to mention Russia. They are going to continue fighting and turn against any government it suspects of softness and “betrayal.” Likewise, the oligarchs and field commanders that are building their own principalities in the wake of Kolomoisky won’t be happy about a stronger central government. It is easier for them to pursue their interests in the absence of authority and when the law is enforced by their fighters.

Finally, the United States invested billions of dollars to launch a coup and fan the flames of civil war not with an eye to just allow Poroshenko to reach a deal with Russia and let the southeast go. Considering that the Tymoshenko-led “supporters” behind Poroshenko will turn on him at the drop of a hat and tear him apart in the struggle for power and property, Americans have a wide range of tools at their disposal – from soft power to a new revolution.

To sum up, Poroshenko has very little chance of being president a year from now. He is more likely to turn into yet another transitional figure to be sacrificed to the geopolitical interests of foreign players and the greed of his domestic pseudo-supporters.

But at least his dream has come true. He is the president.

This article was originally published in Russian on www.ria.ru

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.