KYIV, UKRAINE— Billionaire Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s likely new president, wasted little time in exhibiting his pro-Western leanings.
“We need to do all our best to bring in European values,” he said in a victory speech at a rally in Kyiv, after exit polls gave him a clear majority in the first round of voting Sunday.
Standing by his side as he spoke was the formidable bulk of former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, the probable new mayor-elect of Kyiv and one of the leaders of the pro-European street protests that ousted Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Klitschko’s withdrawal from the presidential race and his endorsement of Poroshenko were key elements in the oligarch’s first-round victory.
But in the immediate days and weeks, the most important challenge facing Ukraine’s fifth president since the country broke with the Soviet Union 23 years ago isn’t the country’s developing ties with Europe, analysts say.
The priority will be to repair Kyiv’s shattered relations with Moscow, they say, and to find a solution to the separatist insurgency that Kyiv accuses the Kremlin of fomenting.
Separatists - as if to emphasize they have no intention of throwing in the towel as exit polls indicated there would be no need for a run-off election next month - forced the shutdown of Donetsk airport Sunday night. The evening standoff came after they threatened poll workers, closed polling stations and intimidated voters.
On Sunday night, Poroshenko described relations with Russia as “the hardest in the last 200 years.”
But the oligarch, nicknamed the “chocolate king” for his confectionary business empire, added a note of optimism, saying, “I'm sure that we can talk to Russia with the help of the U.S.”
Business community seeking calm
It may be domestic allies among Ukraine’s oligarchs who can help him more than Washington. They have already started the process, say aides to Poroshenko.
A key interlocutor behind the scenes is Ukraine’s richest businessman, Donetsk native Rinat Akhmetov. The coal and steel magnate last week threw his weight behind the pro-unity cause – belatedly, some critics says – and urged his workers in east Ukraine to help boost law and order in the region and to stage protests against separatists.
“Akhmetov has good contacts in the Kremlin and he is using them now,” a European diplomat told VOA.
The diplomat said Ukrainian businessmen are partly responsible for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s softened rhetoric last week.
The Russian leader on Friday said he would respect the election’s outcome, a shift from his earlier position that Yanukovych’s ouster was a coup and the election therefore illegal.
Diplomats and analysts here say the key to a solution in the east rests with satisfying Moscow sufficiently on two Kremlin demands: that closer European ties will not result in Ukraine later joining NATO and that the mostly Russian-speaking eastern areas are granted semi-autonomy.
The interim government of acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has already indicated it favors considerable decentralization of power.
But it has not given in to Moscow’s demand for a federal solution that would allow Donetsk and Luhansk to run, among other things, their own foreign policies.
Ukrainian politicians fear that the federalization of Ukraine would allow Moscow greater opportunity to manipulate and interfere in the former Soviet republic.
On Sunday night, Poroshenko, who was born in the southern port city of Odessa, made clear he opposes anything more than decentralization.
“Over 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for a united Ukraine, not a federative state,” he said.
NATO stance uncertain
Poroshenko’s position on NATO is unclear, although he has said he doesn’t want to hold a national referendum on joining the Western security pact.
The referendum issue was pushed hard by the runner-up in Sunday’s elections, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Even if Moscow can be satisfied about the east, diplomats say it is unlikely that security can quickly be restored in the east.
“The worry is that there will be a lot of angry and armed separatists feeling let down by Moscow and fearful that if they surrender, they will end up in jail,” a European diplomat said.
The head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, told VOA that he opposes an amnesty and that everyone who participated in the separatist insurgency should face punishment.
“These people are terrorists and they should be prosecuted,” said Nalyvaichenko, chief of SBU. “These people should have no place to hide and no way to avoid criminal prosecution.”
Analysts say a continued low-grade insurgency would likely make it harder for Kyiv to persuade irregular nationalist groups, some who have joined a recently formed National Guard, to stand down, risking clashes.
Pressure to address corruption
Aside from overcoming the daunting challenges of the east, Poroshenko also faces massive expectations for speedy reform of Ukraine’s graft-engrained political and judicial systems.
Anger with widespread corruption provided much of the fuel for the months-long mass protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan, that toppled Yanukovych.
Recent opinion polls have indicated corruption remains one of Ukraine’s most serious problems.
Analysts say Poroshenko’s third-biggest challenge will be coping with a parliament dominated by Yanukovych-era politicians, some of whom are under investigation by a new anti-corruption agency.
Some Ukrainians fear that parliament will drag its heels on reforms that threaten members’ interests and their business dealings.
Poroshenko said he favors early parliamentary elections this year.