Should the EU trust Poroshenko to lead Ukraine?
By Maryla Krol
As Ukrainians gear up for the long awaited presidential election of 25 May, all eyes are fixed on Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s seventh richest man.
Despite an unprecedented number of candidates (46) seeking their chances at the ballot, the latest polls put this little known businessman and former minister in the lead, just shy of the 50 percent majority needed to obtain a first-round victory.
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Widely embraced by Western media and politicians, Poroshenko is presented as the candidate best suited to lead Ukraine out of its quagmire of inner turmoil and patch up the wounds left behind by the Euromaidan.
Indeed, he was the first billionaire to speak out in favour of the revolution, showing up in Kiev’s main square to broadcast his views throughout Ukraine on leading TV network Kanal 5, one of the country’s major channels.
After former president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, he quickly shot up in visibility, eventually convincing Vitali Klitschko to endorse him as his party’s candidate for the presidential elections. A self-made man, he amassed his considerable wealth of $1.3 billion from manufacturing and selling sweets, transforming his Roshen company into a household name in the ex-Soviet bloc.
This is the standard narrative related in Western media channels. Unfortunately, these are all answers to the wrong questions.
A well-rounded appraisal of Poroshenko should not linger too much on his feats of the last few months, but should start from one fundamental question: Can he be trusted?
In the wake of the Euromaidan and of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine has revealed its inner chasms and seeming insurmountable divisions. The centrifugal forces that had kept the country together under Yanukovych’s rule have all but collapsed under the destabilising influence of its rapacious Eastern neighbor.
Many now fear that other regions will follow suit and be either absorbed or even occupied by Moscow’s appetite for territorial control. Therefore, what Ukraine needs is a leader that can successfully bind together its people, restore confidence in a shared destiny and bring the country back into the European fold.
But is Poroshenko that leader?
Poroshenko’s track record reads like a manual of party-hopping. He has been a near-permanent presence on the Ukrainian political scene, cautiously supporting all major political figures at different times.
He found his way into politics in the late 1990s by joining the Social Democratic Party, led at that time by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Vladimir Putin. As a member, Poroshenko was elected to parliament in 1998 enjoying the support of the Kremlin-backed President Kuchma.
In 2000, he became one of the founding members of the Party of Regions.
He broke ranks in 2002 and became Viktor Yushchenko’s campaign chief, winning him another seat in parliament and his first significant political function as head of the parliamentary budget committee.
After Yushchneko’s dramatic win in the 2004 Presidential elections, Poroshenko got his first whiff of real power, as secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, a position which gave him considerable access to Ukraine’s elite circles. For a while, he was even known as “Yushchenko’s wallet”, due to the significant financial backing he offered the ex-president in campaign funds.
His stint in the government did not last very long: following a very public and brutal falling out he had with then-prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in which they traded accusations of corruption, Poroshenko resigned from his position.
His leadership capacities were considerable, and at one point he was even suspected of having formed a shadow government and that a “Byzantine system of management” had evolved under his rule. It is unclear whether these allegations were true. What is clear though is that with his departure, the government had lost a powerful ally, both politically and financially.
After a stint heading Ukraine’s National Bank, in a move that surprised many, Poroshenko returned to the political scene in 2012 as minister of economic development and trade under Yanukovych. During his term, he oversaw Ukraine’s delicate balancing act with the European Union and Russia over joining their respective trade areas.
More Richelieu than Willy Wonka?
While European leaders seem to be won over by his steady rhetoric and curt declarations that appear to reflect a deep commitment to European values, his track record strikes a dismal note. Indeed, throughout his political career, Poroshenko did not espouse the same strong pro-Western views as today.
As minister of trade, he initiated talks with his Russian counterpart Andrey Slepnev and signed a memorandum of cooperation meant to increase the interdependency of the two economies before an expected association agreement with the Kremlin-backed Customs Union.
Poroshenko has been at times a leftist, a centrist and a rightist, at once pro-West and pro-Moscow.
So how can he ask the wholehearted support of his citizens and of the international community if he has never been able to fully support a plan for Ukraine? Once elected, there are no guarantees that he will stick with the ideas he so loudly proclaims now.
The underlying theme beneath Poroshenko’s extensive political career is not some moral crusade on how to improve the lives of Ukrainians but a marked fluidity of convictions that have shifted alongside the undercurrents of the ruling political class.
With this in mind, his charm offensive should not fool anyone.
The writer is a Geneva-based economist