This weekend’s elections brought a sense of euphoria to Ukraine, as Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European candidate, won the country’s presidency in the first round of voting. Despite the fact that 10 percent of the electorate was not able to vote as polling stations in Donetsk and Lughansk remained closed, 90 percent of Ukrainians were able to cast their ballots (55 percent actually did), rendering the election legitimate and legal. The results of the presidential elections have important implications for Ukraine, as voters expressed a clear choice for Europe, for reforms, and for a united country. They cement the demands Ukrainian society has been making of its political class for the last six months, since the protests in Maidan first erupted. They also lifted the popular mood, and gave the newly elected president the popular enthusiasm and support he will need when pursuing his difficult mandate.
The president-elect’s task now is not an easy one, and he will have to meet very high expectations. Ukrainian voters, along with many in the Ukrainian government, are looking to him to stabilize the situation in the country’s east, do away with corruption, and move ahead with painful economic reforms.
To his advantage, he has the support of a population that feels more Ukrainian than ever, and remains united against a common enemy – Russia. Putin’s actions in Ukraine have reinforced the determination of Ukrainian citizens to see their country succeed, and to prevent a repeat of the saga of the Orange Revolution.
Yet the support of the population will weaken when the reforms start to hit, making it essential that the chocolate magnate-turned-president uses the current sugar rush to push through the toughest measures and tackle the most difficult reforms. President Poroshenko’s tasks will be further complicated by the power Ukrainian oligarchs still hold and the influence they still have over the country’s policies. Serious anti-corruption measures will hurt their interests, and their reactions may modify the pace and the course of reform, risking a repeat of the ill-fated Orange Revolution.
Ukrainians’ confidence that the country and its new president will succeed rests with association with the European Union ; for them this goes beyond any technical provisions contained in specific agreements, representing instead a friendly embrace that will keep them from slipping back to corruption and failure. Yet even as Ukrainians demonstrated, once again, their preference for Europe, Europeans in their own elections proved their fatigue with the European Union and their decreasing interest in a more united Europe. The newly elected European Parliament, with one-third of its seats occupied by extreme right and nationalist parties, is not good news for Ukraine. Europe will be even more preoccupied with itself and show decreased attention to its neighborhood. The EU’s Eastern policy will probably not be able to muster the political punch it needs, and appetite for extensive support to Ukraine, or to other countries in the region, will only decrease. Moreover, many of these parties enjoy good relations with Moscow. Their influence on the EU’s policy toward Russia will not benefit Ukraine’s interests, and the European embrace of Ukraine might become more of a friendly pat on the shoulder.
Ukraine also relies on and believes in European and U.S. support for its stance against Russia, as this represents the main, if not the only, tool to stop Russia’s interference in the country. This weekend, though, further revealed the weakness of the West’s opposition, as representatives of BP, Total, ENI, Philips, IBM, and Exxon, among others, traveled to Russia to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Furthermore, some of these companies signed important contracts with Russian enterprises, in defiance of EU- and U.S.-imposed sanctions. The unity and determination of the West to protect the principle of territorial integrity is being slowly eroded by financial interests, and the EU will soon find it impossible to adopt a serious policy toward Russia that would limit the influence of the latter in Europe, even less so in the countries to Europe’s east.
President Poroshenko will likely find his tasks more difficult than anticipated, and external support weaker than he might have hoped. His only ally is a genuine determination to proceed with internal reforms and to address the problems in the Eastern regions, as only concrete, positive results will convince the population to continue to support him, and help Ukraine’s friends in the West secure the support the country needs to advance.