Ukrainians Choose Billionaire Businessman As Next President
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A billionaire chocolate-maker is the projected winner in Ukraine's weekend presidential election. This is a country, of course, where there has been a lot of tension with pro-Russian separatists. And in the eastern part of the country, violence kept some polls closed.
And yet Ukrainians went to vote, and they chose businessman and former cabinet minister Petro Poroshenko to run the country at this critical moment. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Kiev where he's been reporting and joins us on the line. Peter, good morning.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning.
GREENE: So tell us who Petro Poroshenko is.
KENYON: Well, he's a very wealthy man. He did business for years in Russia, although that relationship is strained at the moment. He's managed to be part of Ukrainian politics for a long time without ever being quite front and center. He doesn't head a party, but he has served as a cabinet minister for both pro-European and pro-Russian presidents. His own politics are clearly pro-European.
Despite his wealth, he really hasn't been lumped in with the other oligarchs seen as the epitome of Ukraine's immense corruption. We asked several voters about Poroshenko's wealth yesterday. They almost all pointed to his decision to either sell his assets or put them into a blind trust - something that happens routinely in the U.S., but not here. So there is some hope he'll be focusing on affairs of state unlike the last president, Viktor Yanukovych.
GREENE: As he starts focusing on those affairs of state, I mean, the big question is what he can actually get done in a country that has just been torn apart by tension recently.
KENYON: Yes, and there's a huge difficulty facing him in terms of the eastern regions - the violence continues. The latest report is from Donetsk airport where armed men have stormed the terminal building, and the flights are now suspended. As of yesterday, there was probably only 1 in 5 polls in Donetsk, Luhansk and other eastern cities that managed to stay open. Quite a few voters were intimidated - stayed away from the ones that were open.
So it was a very difficult election. The West is already praising it, but how Russia responds is going to be very important. Last week Vladimir Putin said he would respect these results, but Ukrainians say Moscow can only be judged by its actions, not its rhetoric. So what he can get done and how quickly is a very big question.
GREENE: Well, Peter, if you're talking about polls being closed because of violence, does that affect the legitimacy of this election victory at all?
KENYON: Well, that remains to be seen. And Russia's reaction, I think, will be paramount. Last week the Russian president said he would respect these results, but that's also what Moscow said about the referendum for independence that eastern voters had that was pretty clearly unconstitutional.
So it all depends on what Moscow does next. Does it continue to pull the troops back? Does it stop threatening to move in to protect Russian citizens? The West, I'd say, is pretty clearly on board with this. President Obama has spoken warmly of progress being made here, so I think the real question is Russia.
GREENE: All right, so the question, Russia going forward - the West has so far given its endorsement for this election. Peter, I mean, if this man comes in and takes over as president and gets started - any sense for his agenda? The top priority being, of course, trying to calm down violence in the east.
KENYON: Poroshenko says his first trip will be to the east. He's going to try to calm the situation there, but he also says he's not going to negotiate with separatists unless they lay down their arms. Now, beyond that, he's got economic problems that are just enormous. He's promising to end corruption. That's very hard to do.
He has to prove to the IMF and the Western aid donors that their money isn't being swallowed up in the same corruption pit that devoured previous funds. And he's got to try to move Ukraine closer to Europe, which will also complicate his relations with Moscow.
GREENE: None of these easy tasks. OK, we've been speaking to NPR's Peter Kenyon about the projected winner in Ukraine's presidential election. He's a billionaire chocolate-maker named Petro Poroshenko. Peter, thanks very much.
KENYON: You're welcome, David.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.