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Why Petro Poroshenko Is Not the New Beginning Ukraine Needs

06/13/2014 05:36 EDT | Updated 08/13/2014 05:59 EDT
SERGEI SUPINSKY via Getty Images
New Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko salutes supporters during a ceremony of his inauguration in Kiev on June 7, 2014. Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as Ukraine's fifth post-Soviet president today, vowing to maintain the unity of his country amid a continuing crisis with Russia. Poroshenko, a 48-year-old billionaire who won the presidential election on May 25 with 54.7 percent of the vote, took the oath in the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Ukrainians celebrated last Saturday's inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko with chocolate made by his company Roshen. Voted the country's favourite chocolate for the past three years in a row, Ukrainians love for Roshen confectioneries has spilled over into electoral politics. Mr. Poroshenko won a decisive victory over his closest competitor, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, a two-time former prime minister was recently released from jail on embezzlement charges.However, her imprisonment by the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, was widely regarded as politically motivated. Yanukovych was deposed in a series of protests, dubbed "Euromaidan" this past spring.

At first glance, a 'chocolate king' (and self-made billionaire) seems an odd choice as leader of a country that is currently splitting apart at the seams. However, the country as a whole has embraced Poroshenko and his message that he stands outside the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics, Ukraine-style. Voters are hopeful that since he has already amassed his fortune, he will be less inclined to help himself to the government coffers, a common compulsion of elected officials in Ukraine.

Mr. Poroshenko is also widely seen as capable of bridging the gap between those who want the country turning westward into the willing arms of the EU, and those in the east of the country who are fearful that the country is turning its back on its Slavic roots and its centuries long embrace of Russia's sphere of influence.

The allure of Mr. Poroshenko's frothy confectionery solutions to the country's deepening political woes was all too apparent during my brief time in the country as a short-term election observer. He also managed to accomplish something neither Viktor Yanokovych nor Tymoshenko ever had: winning a majority in both the western and eastern halves of the country.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm that has greeted his election, not everyone agrees that Poroshenko's ascendency to the country's highest political office will turn a new corner for Ukraine.

For the "Euromaidan" protests to have been a success, the country needs real institutional reform and new political actors free from the taint of corruption and scandal that has put Ukraine on a see-saw between two competing factions, represented by Yanokovych and Tymoshenko, over the past decade.

Poroshenko, has served in both Tymoshenko and Yanokovych governments. And his recent tenure as minister for trade and economic development is remarkable only for its lack of accomplishment. Somewhat surprising for someone who runs the 18th largest confectionery company in the world.

The day before I left the country, I had the opportunity to go to Maidan Square, where protests erupted last fall leading to the fall of the previous government and the election of the new president. Maidan lies a heartbeat away from the seat of national political power, but from those I had a chance to speak with who are still camped out on the square - the elections were meaningless for them. Whether they were from east or west, twenty years of post-Soviet life in Ukraine had left them with nothing. They had come to Maidan, tired of living on the margins of Ukrainian society, hopeful that their voices would finally be heard, but for them the election of Petro Poroshenko represents more of the same.

They have watched him cosy up to both sides of the political see-saw for the last decade and fear life will remain the same. But as YouTube captured bulldozers moving into Maidan Square last week to prepare for the inauguration of Mr. Poroshenko, it appeared the protestors are losing the one thing they have clung on to through all the months of political upheaval, a chance to have their voices heard. It will likely not be long before its back to 'politics as usual' in Maidan as it is in the rest of the country.

Corey Levine is a writer and commentator. She recently returned from her fourth election observation mission to the Ukraine.

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