Since the ‘Euromaidan’ protests the Kremlin has portrayed the post-revolution Ukrainian leadership as a nationalist and fascist junta. This has prevented high-level dialogue with Moscow and instigated fear and hatred in the east of Ukraine towards new authorities. According to a Levada opinion poll more than 40 per cent of Russians believe that the largely Russian-speaking population in the east is threatened by nationalists, and many Russian-speakers in the southeast do not accept the authority of the new government in Kyiv.
Free and fair presidential elections are essential to demonstrate that Ukraine has a legitimate president and is committed to democratic values. Even if elections in two of the oblasts, Donetsk and Luhansk, may be partially disrupted by the pro-Russian separatists, three other regions of the east − Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia − are under Kyiv’s control and should be able to hold a free and fair vote.
Petro Poroshenko, currently polling over 40 per cent, will most probably win. Forbes magazine in 2013 ranked him the seventh richest man in Ukraine, his fortune made in consumer goods − primarily confectionery and automobiles.
His popularity surged during the winter protest in Kyiv partly because he provided financial support to sustain the protesters and assisted activists who were abducted by thugs and riot police. He projected confidence and did not shy away from the front lines of confrontation between the protesters and the riot police. His political past of cooperating with former Presidents Victor Yushchenko and Victor Yanukovych haunts him, but to a lesser extent than the other contenders, especially Yulia Tymoshenko.
If Poroshenko is elected, it will be on essentially a pro-European and pro-reform mandate. The newly elected president should focus on three key priorities.
First, he should ensure security and territorial integrity by reforming security forces. The eastern-most region of Ukraine is in danger of turning into a lawless territory, where heavily armed men continue to take over public buildings, militarize the population, torture activists and local independent media, and talk about creating breakaway states.
Numerous events in the southeast have demonstrated that the existing Ukrainian security forces are inefficient, corrupt, and infiltrated by Russian secret services. In many cases local police forces still show loyalties to the old regime instead of protecting public security. In Odessa the local head of police cooperated with separatists who were shooting at a pro-Ukrainian demonstration behind the police ranks. The resulting security vacuum has led to a civilian death toll in the southeast of around 120 on both sides of the conflict. Establishing capabilities that would increase border and cyber security, and strengthen the Ukrainian army to counter the militants’ threat to civilians in the east should be a priority.
Second, the new president should begin a nation-wide debate about democracy across Ukraine. The sharing of powers between Kyiv and the regions, financial decentralization, political accountability and a review of state guarantees to its citizens should be reflected in a new constitution.
Bringing the decision-making process closer to citizens is of paramount importance. Ukraine needs a new administrative system that can meet its new challenges. New parliamentary elections should be called by the end of the year to assemble a representative parliament that reflects the new realities and provides a fresh chance for Ukrainians in the Donbass to elect their representatives. With a change of constitution towards a parliamentary-presidential system, the parliament will have the power to authorize reforms and deliver on the new social contract.
Third, the new leader should open Ukraine to international markets and investment. Economic reforms should focus on creating an open and level playing field for domestic and foreign investors. Signing the economic part of the Association Agreement with the EU would give a strong impetus to establishing a robust rule of law and curbing corruption. Reaching out to investors globally will provide the necessary resources for a new economic boost and much-needed modernization of the Ukrainian economy. An important decision has to be made if Russian investors will be allowed into strategic industries. Export diversification should be a priority. New partnerships should be forged beyond EU member states with China, Central Asia and Latin America.
Of course the new Ukrainian leadership should seek improving relations with Russia but such a scenario is hardly possible in the short-term. Russia is waging a hidden war over Ukraine using cyber, information and unconventional warfare. Today, even in the east, after the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians perceive Russia as an aggressive state and over 70 per cent have negative views about President Putin and believe he is meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs, according to an April poll of the Ukrainian Rating Agency. It is only a strong independent Ukraine with a democratic system of governance and sustainable energy policy that can have a credible dialogue with Russia. Anything else will be a tactical move just to survive the troubling times.
The good news for the incoming president is that Ukrainian society is a strong lobbyist for reform. Almost 40 per cent of the population claim they are ready to endure short-term hardships for positive change and the majority believe that elections will help improve the situation. The new president should capitalize on this determination.
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