In Ukraine, a vote to turn foe into friend

After winning Ukraine's presidential election, Petro Poroshenko sets his first priority: reaching out to separatists. Nations in civil conflict need a healer who can calm the fears of those in rebellion.

Petro Poroshenko speaks in Kiev after winning Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday. He said he he would not negotiate with armed separatists in the Russian-speaking east but was open to dialog with people there with grievances, provided they rejected violence.

Petro Poroshenko, a.k.a. the “Chocolate King” of Ukraine, certainly has plenty on his platter after handily winning Sunday’s election for president. Activists want more anti-corruption laws. A huge government debt threatens economic reforms. Russia growls about his pro-Europe stance.

So what does this billionaire businessman, the only Ukrainian tycoon to support last fall’s protests in Kiev, choose as his top priority?

The new president says he will first travel to the eastern region known as Donbass and talk to people who either did not vote for him or could not vote because of civil conflict there. Mr. Poroshenko does not seek to crush the separatists in the Russian-speaking areas. Rather, he wants to ease their fear of political domination by the majority in the west who speak Ukrainian.

In other words, rather than gloat with triumphalism after his strong victory, Poroshenko has adopted a humble approach. His magnanimity in reaching out to those who oppose him has the potential to heal a fractured nation and eventually unify it.

Not many countries are able to hold elections during a civil conflict. Yet Ukraine has now done so, much like the United States did during its Civil War. In his second inaugural address in 1865, Abraham Lincoln sought to reconcile the North and South by reminding them to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Only then could the US “achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace.”

Achieving peace in Ukraine will not mean forgiving the separatists who have killed civilians, Poroshenko said Sunday. Indeed, Ukrainian troops launched air attacks Monday against pro-Russia rebels who took the Donetsk airport by force. But he did promise to grant an amnesty for rebels who hand over their guns.

Such an approach toward reconciliation hints that he may also seek to dampen the intense political rivalries that have damaged Ukraine’s democracy since independence in 1991. Much of that rivalry has been driven by oligarchs – including himself – in a contest over control of government favors. To set a new example, Poroshenko says he will relinquish control of his confectionery business. He also plans to end a system that has provided “corrupt benefits” to oligarchs and their families. This would be one of many reforms that the Ukraine is already making – including a plan to decentralize power to the regions – that will help unify the country.

Poroshenko also hopes to reconcile Ukraine’s drive to join the European Union with Russia’s strong interest in a Ukraine that does not upset the current geopolitical balance with Europe. This task will surely test his well-honed negotiating skills, perhaps even more so than talks with the separatists.

As elections results came in Sunday, Poroshenko seemed more pleased with the record voter turnout than his own victory. The turnout shows that Ukrainians are ready for a stable democracy, one governed by modesty instead of weaponry.

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