Ukraine picks Poroshenko for prez, but is in no mood to celebrate

Petro Poroshenko's victory in Sunday's election appears decisive, a rarity in the fractured nation, but he – and Ukraine – still face huge obstacles politically and economically.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
People walk past a news stand a day after the Ukrainian presidential election in the western city of Lviv Monday. Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he would not negotiate with armed separatists in the Russian-speaking east of his country but was open to dialog with people there with grievances, if they rejected violence. The headline (top r.) reads, 'New President - Petro Poroshenko.'

Ukraine has elected a president in what is expected to be a rare first-round victory. Finally the nation has a leader, after six months of political drama and uncertainty. Ukraine’s eurobonds rose, President Obama sent the nation congratulations, and Russia says it will respect its neighbor's presidential choice.

So why is there no collective sigh of relief on the streets of Ukraine?

There are three main reasons: The nation is in no mood to celebrate; Ukrainians have become skeptical after the failures of the Orange Revolution a decade ago; and in the eastern part of the country many don’t recognize that they even have a new president.

In other words, this crisis is far from over.

“Ukraine lost lives, faces the annexation of Crimea, a current military operation,” says Igor Burakovsky, the head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kiev, on Monday morning after the race. “We are losing resources and time. … I see no grounds for jubilation.”

Petro Poroshenko, who garnered over 50 percent of votes Sunday night, according to preliminary tallies, seemed to tap into the national zeitgeist on election night. As he came on stage, a half hour after polls closed, he plainly declared a first-round victory – without the intonations typical of a political victory speech.

The speech caps off a solemn campaign, in which the hubris of politics seemed inappropriate in the context of crisis. From the crackdown of former President Viktor Yanukovych in February before his ouster to the conflict playing out in eastern Ukraine, lives have been lost, and one can expect more lives will be lost.

But the muted response also shows a maturation of the Ukrainian people – a sense of cautious optimism that just because the leader they wanted is in office doesn’t mean that they can let their guard down. In fact, Mr. Poroshenko’s hearty win does not attest to a wildly popular leader necessarily but the results of a strategic vote that Ukrainians placed to put an end to political ambiguity as quickly as possible.

“The country has given [Poroshenko] our trust,” says Serhiy Loboyko, as he walks through Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, Sunday night, where candles and photos memorialize those who died in Mr. Yanukovych’s violent crackdown. “At such an important moment in our history, let’s hope he doesn’t screw it up.”

And there are many places in the country that has placed in him no trust whatsoever – especially for those who didn’t even vote. While turnout was estimated at 60 percent nationwide, according to Ukraine’s central elections commission, it was exactly zero in the city of Donetsk, where a May 11 referendum was organized by separatists who have since declared regional sovereignty.  The referendum, one of two held in the east, followed the annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. 

Presidential elections have done little to ease tensions in the east. In fact, if anything they have flared. Separatists here late Sunday declared a state of emergency in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, although they did not make clear what that would mean. Early on Monday morning, armed men arrived at the regional airport and forced the administration there to delay and cancel flights coming in and out. By midday, the road leading to the airport was closed by police. 

Representatives of the separatists said they were determined to "clean" the region of occupying enemy forces, meaning the Ukrainian military and National Guard. 

Reaction to Poroshenko's election were mixed in Donetsk Monday morning. Not a single polling station was in operation within the city of about 1 million, so hardly any voters participated. Only those who registered in nearby cities and towns with open polling stations were able to cast their ballots. 

In Donetsk city, there is support for the self-declared "people's republic," and many on Monday said they recognized the election as having occurred in a neighboring country, Ukraine, of which they do not consider to be part of the constituency.

"Taking part in that election would be like Belarus voting in a presidential election in the United States," says resident Ivan Soroka. "We have nothing to do with Ukraine now. We've had our election,” he says.

For those who wanted to vote but were unable to, there was mounting frustration with the central government in Kiev's inability to prevent the armed rebels from disrupting life in the region.

"Don't they see that maybe some of their supporters need to use the airport, too?" asked Svetlana Dyachenko, who said her polling station was not open on Sunday and that she was unable to vote. Ms. Dyachenko says she fears her job as a receptionist at a local hotel is in jeopardy. "Our business depends on tourists and businessmen. How are they going to get to Donetsk if they don't allow the flights?"

Poroshenko has said his first trip will be made to this troubled region, but the tasks ahead are daunting. And not yet cause for celebration.

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