Ukraine's new leader beset by challenges on all fronts

Ukrainian politician and Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko has moved swiftly to stamp his authority on the country, offering to rebuild relations with Russia while cracking down on pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

But although the chocolate manufacturing tycoon enjoys strong Western backing including public support from US President Barack Obama, he is already facing serious difficulties at home.

The first challenge is preventing ethnic Russian regions in the eastern part of the country from seceding. During his electoral campaign, Mr Poroshenko promised to negotiate with local Russian leaders and to "do everything to win their trust".

He also admitted what most of his fellow politicians were loath to say, namely that "it is impossible to return peace to Ukraine without Russia's cooperation".

Yet, soon after his election was confirmed early this week, Mr Poroshenko approved a massive military assault on rebel positions in the country which, for the first time, involved the full use of air power by government forces.

Aides close to Mr Poroshenko, who will not be inaugurated for at least another week but already appears to be making most of the key decisions, claim that he was forced to act because the rebels were about to seize the airport in Donetsk, a large industrial town of one million inhabitants.

"In no civilised country of the world does anybody negotiate with terrorists," he told journalists as the military operation was in full swing. "We are a civilised country, and we will fight."

Meanwhile, the President-elect also appears to have toughened his stance on Russia.

Having promised to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Poroshenko has now embraced a Ukrainian government demand of US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) against Russia for property seized in Crimea, the Ukrainian province annexed by Russia in March. This is hardly a promising start to better ties with Moscow.

Western diplomats in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev speculate that these moves are merely tactical: Mr Poroshenko may be trying to strengthen his nationalist credentials by confronting the Russian separatists now, as a prelude to offering them a compromise soon after his inauguration.

And though he sounds tough on Russia at the moment, he may still be planning a ground-breaking meeting with his Russian counterpart at some later stage.

That could be the way Russia itself sees current Ukrainian developments. For although the officially controlled Russian media has maintained its hostility towards Ukraine's newly elected leader by referring to him as a "puppet" and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed rumours of a diplomatic dialogue with Ukraine as "unfounded in every way", Mr Putin has sounded more conciliatory, vowing to "respect the choices of the Ukrainian people".

Still, Mr Poroshenko does not have much time at his disposal for such tactical manoeuvres, for he is already facing a host of domestic challenges. And chief among these is the reality that the President-elect does not control Parliament, where his long-time opponent Yulia Tymoshenko's supporters are in control.

Ms Tymoshenko, who was a distant second in the recent election, readily conceded defeat. Yet, she is unlikely to remain quiet for long and is expected to demand a senior position in government once the inauguration is over.

And that puts Mr Poroshenko in a serious dilemma. He could offer Ms Tymoshenko a position, including that of prime minister, and risk a permanent political battle with an abrasive politician notorious for her inability to work as a team player. Or, he could try to call new elections, risking a further period of instability.

All the indications are that Mr Poroshenko has yet to make up his mind, which is why his initial promise to appoint a new government "within hours" after his election has not been fulfilled.

Mr Poroshenko has also been damaged by a decision to sell his financial assets, including the Roshen chocolate conglomerate which made his initial fortunes, but still keep control of a popular local television channel.

It is obvious what he has in mind: With conflict between himself and Parliament inevitable, he wants to be sure of sympathetic media coverage.

Still, that does not bode well for many Ukrainians, who hoped their new leader would break with the behaviour of his predecessors, all of whom used money or financial favours to control the media.

Mr Poroshenko's biggest asset remains the sheer scale of his electoral triumph: At the moment, nobody inside Ukraine doubts his legitimacy. But that may prove to be a short-lived advantage.

This article was first published on May 29, 2014.
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