Part of the mystery of Ukraine is why, after two historic popular uprisings in a single decade against a political system corrupted by business tycoons, Ukrainians would choose yet another billionaire as president. Part of the tragedy of Ukraine is that Ukrainians didn't have much choice.
Sunday’s presidential election was fought among three wealthy candidates: the chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, fellow billionaire Serhiy Tigipko and former "gas princess" Yulia Tymoshenko. Exit polls suggest that Poroshenko won more than 55 percent of the vote, erasing the need for a second round and the prolonged uncertainty that would have caused -- a vitally important outcome for a country on the verge of civil war.
Poroshenko will now help Ukraine to implement its $17 billion International Monetary Fund aid program, which demands reforms such as cutting energy subsidies that Ukraine’s elite have long obstructed. Poroshenko himself has been mixing his wealth with politics since 1998; in 2005 he helped to bring about the collapse of the government that the first popular uprising, led in part by Tymoshenko, put in power; and in 2012 he served as economy minister under the reviled former President Viktor Yanukovych, forced into exile by Ukraine's second popular uprising earlier this year.
So it is understandable that some in eastern Ukraine doubt that this exchange of leaders was worth a revolution. At the same time, Poroshenko deserves a chance to show he is different.
He needs to lead the way in forcing a separation between politics and business in Ukraine. There are reasons to believe he might try: For one thing, the sweeping economic reform demanded by the IMF wouldn't obviously threaten Poroshenko’s business interests (it doesn’t take much Russian gas to make chocolate). Besides, Ukraine’s business tycoons by now understand that without the help of the IMF and the European Union, and the reforms tied to their aid, the country cannot survive. An early test of Poroshenko's seriousness will be whether he follows through on his campaign promise -- repeated today -- to sell off his business interests if he won.
Poroshenko’s biggest challenge will be to do all this while finding ways to end the escalating war in the east. At the same time as he presses ahead with economic reform, Poroshenko should move quickly to show that the government is bringing more than higher heating bills to the masses. Decentralizing power and fiscal authority from Kiev, for example, could help undermine the appeal of the separatists in the east. So would allowing Russian to become an official language.
The apparent clarity of this presidential election result is the first piece of good news Ukraine has had this year. The corrupting dominance of Ukraine’s oligarchy has almost destroyed the country not once but twice in the last decade. Poroshenko has the opportunity to break that cycle.
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