Ukraine's Choice: Revolution in the Square, Stability at the Polls

The 'Chocolate King' president-elect is the kind of president Ukrainians know well - a billionaire with a television station.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko pauses, during a press conference, in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, May 26, 2014.
Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko pauses, during a press conference, in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, May 26, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

KIEV - The sudden surge in support for Petro Poroshenko, as of Monday the President-elect of Ukraine, is probably not the result of a newfound fondness for the 'Chocolate King' on the part of Ukrainian voters. On the face of it, he is the kind of president they know well - a billionaire who controls among his many assets an influential television station.

Poroshenko didn't limit his activities to business affairs; he was always involved in politics, serving in one capacity or another under each of the four former presidents, including the now discredited Viktor Yanukovych, toppled by the Maidan revolution three months ago. And still, as the election campaign proceeded, Poroshenko just got increasingly stronger until he even surpassed the projections of his own favorable polls and crossed the fifty-percent threshold allowing him to win the presidency in just one round of voting.

"We know very well who Poroshenko is," said Vladimir Khaikovsky, manager of a tour-company in Kiev who voted for him on Sunday. "We have few illusions about him but we understand that we need now someone with his experience as a tough negotiator, who can face both the Russians and the Europeans, someone who knows economics and politics and security, someone who was a foreign minister and a finance minister and headed the national security council."

At the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev's central square, they called for democracy and an end to corruption and cronyism. A few dozen resolute ultra-nationalists determined to see the revolution through still remain at the square. But it was the representatives of Maidan, the two leaders of Ukraine's most far-right parties, who were both trounced in these elections, receiving together barely two percent of the vote. On their own in the voting booth, the Ukrainian voters preferred experience and pragmatism, even if that meant sacrificing some of the revolution's principles. Poroshenko was behind the scenes, financing the Maidan demonstrations and in the end, in elections, money talks.

His victory was announced while to the west, throughout the European Union - the organization that many Ukrainians yearn to belong to even at the price of Russian President Vladimir Putin's rage - many voters had chosen anti-establishment parties of the fair-right and radical left, parties whose leaders regard stability and the current system in Europe as an obscene structure that must be torn down. But Europeans believe they can afford to register a massive protest vote because at the end of the day, responsible grown-ups remain in charge. The elections for the European Parliament are not the real thing; they're more like letting off steam. The centrist establishment parties still remain the majority and when each country goes in its term to national elections, most of those who voted for an "anti" party will return to the center.

But Ukraine isn't Europe (yet?). They still see the multiple national crises all around them. Between the failing economy, the near-civil war between pro-Russian separatists and the Kiev government (which on Monday ordered a new military operation to dislodge the separatists from their strongholds in eastern Ukraine) and of course the ever-present threat of Russia which has already annexed Crimea and has not given up on its designs to parse away additional territories. When faced with such existential threats, you choose an experienced old hand to lead.

The presidential elections currently taking place in Egypt are very similar. Millions of voters will choose Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, yet another conservative general - a younger version of Hosni Mubarak - in what seems as a complete repudiation of the Tahrir Revolution three and a half years ago. Tahrir is rapidly becoming a distant memory for Egyptians who for now are also opting for stability over democracy.

Some in Kiev on Monday were consoling themselves with the fact that at least Poroshenko, unlike other oligarchs, hadn't become rich through snapping up state firms and national resources at rock-bottom prices, but had built up most of his businesses himself. An investor who knows him well says that "At least he doesn't owe anyone anything. Also the fact that the business most identified with him, the eponymous chocolate manufacturer "Roshen," is Ukraine's much-loved national sweetener has worked in his favor. Poroshenko has promised to sell his companies (though not the television station) after assuming the presidency but his name will continue to be associated with those sweet moments that alleviate the grey and pessimistic reality of Ukraine.

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