EU endorses Ukraine election, awaits Russian reaction
European election monitors and EU officials have endorsed Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leader, but doubts remain on Russia’s next move.
“According to our observers, in 98 percent of the polling stations we observed, the voting was assessed positively,” Tana de Zulueta, a former Italian MP who led the monitoring team, told press in Kiev on Monday (26 May).
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“We received no reports of any misuse of administrative resources,” she added.
Asked by EUobserver if this means a clear thumbs up on Sunday's election, she said her job is to "observe if voting meets national and international legal standards ... overall, we were able to report that this election did meet those standards."
De Zulueta's election watchdog, the Warsaw-based Odihr, sent 1,200 monitors from 49 countries in its largest ever mission and its first in a country at war.
She said she was "shocked" by what pro-Russia gunmen did to stop people voting in eastern Ukraine.
Odihr's report cited: "Forced eviction and closure of DECs [District Electoral Commissions] by armed groups, intimidation of election officials, including abductions, death threats, forced entry into private homes, seizure of equipment and election materials, and the shooting of a candidate proxy."
Despite the violence, some two thirds of all Ukrainians and half of those in eastern districts cast their ballot.
The winner, Petro Poroshenko, who has pledged to pursue EU integration and to fight pro-Russia rebels, won by a landslide, including in eastern regions, which are home to many Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian nationalist candidates got less than 2 percent – less, for instance, than Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish candidate.
Roman Sohn, a Ukrainian activist and columnist, told this website: "This means the nation stands united behind an elected President with a clear Eurointegration agenda.”
“It also means Ukraine is a tolerant, European nation, and that Russian propaganda [on fascism in western Ukraine] is just a pile of fake news reports."
Odihr's verdict cleared the way for top EU officials Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso to also endorse Poroshenko’s victory. They "took note" that Odihr called it "a genuine election largely in line with international commitments" and urged Ukrainians to unite by "accepting the outcome".
Nato published an EU-type statement, while Lithuania called the election "free and fair".
Poroshenko, a 48-year old businessman, has already made a number of pledges.
He says he will travel to eastern Ukraine to talk with genuine local leaders, but will use military means to confront armed "terrorists".
He says he wants to talk to Russia, but with EU and US mediation.
He also says his first foreign trip will be to Warsaw and that he will "implement the [EU] association agreement”.
Some EU diplomats are concerned he did not explicitly say he will sign an EU free trade pact in Brussels in June, as planned.
But Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian journalist and activist who co-founded the "EuroMaidan" revolutionary movement, told this website: “He didn’t need to say it, it’s so obvious ... He doesn’t have a choice. If he doesn’t sign, he will face another Maidan.”
For his part, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday: “We are ready for dialogue with Kiev representatives, with Petro Poroshenko.” He added: “We don't need any [EU or US] mediators.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the election also said he will “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people.”
But there are signs he is not ready to make peace.
The same day Odihr delivered its verdict, Russia-backed rebels in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, tried to seize control of the airport, prompting a firefight involving the Ukrainian air force. Ukraine also intercepted a large arms shipment from Russia-annexed Crimea to rebel areas, and Russian media continued to foment animosity.
“Russia TV reports [the] far-right Pravy Sektor [candidate] got 37% in Ukraine’s election, not the 1% he did get,” Swedish FM Carl Bildt tweeted.
An EU diplomatic contact said: “We will have to wait and see what kind of price Russia will try to make Ukraine pay for this election result.”
“The bigger the price [in terms of sanctions] that we are willing to make it pay for continued aggression, the easier it will be to negotiate a peaceful solution.”
A second EU diplomat said danger might come in August if peace monitors from the OSCE, Odihr’s sister organisation, leave Ukraine when their mandate expires.
“Putin is distancing himself from the rebels to create political room for manoeuvre. But there is every chance that he will exploit the OSCE vacuum to implement his vision of ‘Novorossiya’,” the contact noted, referring to Putin's statements that east and south Ukraine belong to Russia in historical terms.
Some Ukraine-watchers say the EU’s next step should be to concentrate on Ukraine state-building.
Jan Techau, from the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, told EUobserver: “Europe should invest massively in Ukraine, open its markets, and focus on guiding the new elite.”
He said if the Union gave it an accession promise it would be “divisive” in Ukraine and in the EU, while helping Putin “sing his song of the West’s strategic encirclement of Russia”.
But Charles Tannock, an MEP from the ruling British Conservative party, said EU countries and Nato should send military hardware and trainers to "fortify Ukraine's defences”, while the EU should give it a membership perspective and visa-free travel.
“Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty should be supported by more than words. We should not accept Russia’s veto on its future course,” he noted.
Orysia Lutsevych, from the London-based Chatham House think tank, also predicted Sunday's vote will not end the conflict.
“I think the separatist war will escalate, because for them [the rebels] it's the only survival strategy,” she said. She noted the insurgency is “blurred” because it involves Russian special forces and military intelligence, as well as local Ukrainians in the pay of ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who now lives in Rostov-on-Don, near the Russia-Ukraine border, and who wants “revenge” for his “humiliation”.
“If they [Putin and Yanukovych] continue in this vein, then Russia should qualify for another round of EU sanctions,” Lutsevych said.