Ukraine and the rise of the ‘Chocolate King’

Will the presence of an oligarch at the helm of the country be interpreted as a step back?

Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's presidential elections [AP]

Three months after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fled from the capital, Kiev, in the middle of an insurrection, 36 million Ukrainians were called to cast their vote for a new president on May 25. After a ballot that proved to be less violent than most expected, the results are indisputable: The majority of Ukrainians rallied behind one man, Petro Poroshenko, who won a clear victory with 54 percent of the votes, and now faces the arduous task of restoring security and economic stability in his country.

However, not everything has been perfect. Participation was extremely low in some of the eastern Ukrainian regions. In Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-separatist militias disrupted the ballot and only about 20 percent of the voting stations were open in the two cities. Had all eastern Ukrainians been able and willing to vote, Poroshenko’s margin of victory might have been smaller.

Yet the turnout of 55.3 percent was relatively respectable – and much higher than those seen by western European countries during their European Parliament elections on the same day. The fact that Poroshenko garnered more than four times the votes of his closest rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, endows the newly elected president with a measure of legitimacy. More importantly, these elections have also highlighted three points: the marginalisation of far-right movements in Ukraine, the rejection of corruption, and an indication that the electorate may have finally understood that economic and political stability can only be made by engaging both Russia and Europe.

Russian claims

To begin with, let’s take a look at the first point. Indeed, the election results provide a scathing denial of Russian claims that Kiev has been overtaken by fascist forces. Moscow’s narrative was aimed at unifying Russian-speaking populations who reject European far-right movements and hold on to such “foundational historical events” such as the battle of Stalingrad, overlooking the fact that hundreds of thousands of western Ukrainians fought on their side back then.

People & Power – Ukraine: a dangerous game

This strategy proved extremely effective in encouraging support from local populations for separatist movements in Crimea and the eastern Republics. However, it was not based on any comprehensive analysis of the uprisings in the Maidan, originally initiated by left-wing pro-democracy activists, or the history of far-right minorities in Ukraine.

Newly elected Poroshenko can now use the results of the election to deny those groundless claims as far-right movements because they performed badly. At the helm of the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok only received a meager 1.3 percent of the votes, but still ahead of Dmytro Yarosh (0.9 percent), the leader of the infamous paramilitary group Pravy Sektor.

Those results prove how inaccurate Russian coverage of the events in Kiev has been over the last few months. It also shows how inappropriate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 18 in Kiev against “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” (who had launched) “pogroms and terror after an armed coup” was.

To be fair, the elections also underscored the important place held by those far-right factions in the transitory institutions. With 36 parliament members out of 450 at the Rada and four ministers in the Arseniy Yatseniuk government, the impact of Svoboda and Pravy Sektor was far greater than their actual support in Ukrainian society. It will therefore be interesting to see whether Poroshenko calls for general elections to restore the legitimacy of the current government as favoured by two thirds of Ukrainians.

Old establishment rejected

The second lesson from the elections is the rejection of the old establishment and ruling parties that had been tainted by corruption charges. Yulia Tymoshenko received only 13 percent of the votes, which represents a strong disavowal of her years in office. Even if the accusations against her for abuse of office when she signed a gas deal with Russia in 2009 were clearly politically motivated, she remains a significant political figure and a “shrewd businesswoman”, who made a sudden fortune in shady energy contracts back in the 1990s.

Poroshenko’s name, on the other hand, is not associated as much with privatisation scandals. He amassed most of his wealth in a non-strategic sector: chocolate. The widely labelled “Chocolate King” built a confectionery empire which is now part of the 20 largest corporations in this sector.

Finally, the choice of Poroshenko over the likes of Tymoshenko and other more polarising figures shows an understanding in the electorate that the future of Ukraine cannot be only based on the rejection of Russia. Poroshenko is not a newcomer in politics and served in both the pro-Russian Yanukovich administration as well as its pro-European predecessor when former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko nominated him as Ukraine’s foreign minister.

While the presence of an oligarch at the helm of the country will be interpreted by some as a step back, Poroshenko – as well as other leading industrialists – actually represent a break from past regimes. His profile and capacity to take managerial decisions will most likely be appreciated in Brussels and may be palatable to Putin who was never a convinced supporter of the hesitant and low profile Yanukovich.

In conclusion, the election should strengthen hopes for the future of Ukraine. If the situation in the country remains extremely unstable, and if conflicts over Crimea and eastern Ukraine are still in their early stage, the election of Poroshenko might offer a chance to start from a clean slate. Now that the fear of fascism has been proven groundless, negotiations over the future of the country will be organised within a less ideological framework.

The colossal economic and political difficulties lying ahead of Ukraine need the emergence of a seasoned yet untainted leader – and Poroshenko appears to fit the bill.

Remi Piet is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.