Ukraine’s president off to a good start

Crikey’s content management system has somehow eaten the post of a fortnight ago in which I discussed (among other things) the Ukrainian presidential election. But as readers will have worked out anyway, Ukrainian voters decided, understandably enough, that the state of their country meant it was important to get a new president in place quickly. So they rallied to the favorite, chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, in order to avoid having to go to a second round three weeks later.

Poroshenko won a comfortable 54.7%, with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko a distant second on 12.8% and Oleh Lyashko on 8.3%. Oleh Tyahnybok, from the much-feared (at least in Kremlin propaganda) neo-fascist party Svoboda, could manage only tenth place and 1.2%.

The election was not entirely satisfactory, with many people in the disputed eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk unable to vote. No voting was even attempted in Crimea, which, although of course he denies it, Poroshenko will at some point probably have to concede as lost for good. But turnout otherwise was apparently very good, and the margin is sufficiently impressive that it will be hard to dispute the new president’s legitimacy.

Since the election, things have moved hesitantly in the direction of peace, or at least negotiation. On Friday, at the anniversary commemoration of D-Day in Normandy, Poroshenko met for about 15 minutes with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Yesterday, the Russian ambassador was present at Poroshenko’s inauguration, a gesture that would have seemed most unlikely a few weeks ago.

One of the main differences between the two leading presidential candidates was that Tymoshenko, unlike Poroshenko, was pushing for Ukrainian membership in NATO – the thing that would do most to antagonise Putin. And Russian media have taken a positive tone, praising Poroshenko’s approach and quoting Putin saying that if it continues, “there will be conditions created to develop our relations in other fields.”

Perhaps most important is what is not said: there is no suggestion that Poroshenko is not a legitimately elected president.

Poroshenko promises dialogue with the eastern regions, with enhanced decentralisation on the table. That won’t satisfy the diehard separatists, and his big task will be striking the right balance between conciliating the bulk of the population and applying military force against the recalcitrants. No doubt, Putin’s attitude will have a big effect on how much more blood has to be shed before the crisis can be resolved.

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