Ukraine’s Poroshenko In a Bind
Written by Marren Haneberg
In the face of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, pro-EU Poroshenko was elected Ukrainian president in 2014 with 54% of the vote (Yermolenko). Poroshenko’s presidency might “be the most dynamic [era] in Ukraine’s post-independence history,” with major changes in the constitution, culture, and international affairs of Ukraine (Yermolenko).
Decentralization and Language
A month after being elected, Poroshenko began amending Ukraine’s constitution to decentralize governance and increase regional autonomy. In July 2015, Poroshenko granted partial autonomy to Donbass for three years, despite pro-Russian rebels demands for full autonomy (“Poroshenko Unveils Constitutional…”).
Poroshenko has included language reform in his decentralization efforts, leaving minority language status to be determined by local leaders (“Amendments to Ukraine’s…”). At the expense of Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population, this reform made Ukrainian the nation’s sole official language, increasing strife in regions where Russian previously was the second official language. The reform also caused an unintended “diplomatic spat” with Hungary after Poroshenko banned all languages but Ukrainian in secondary education, as Ukraine has a significant Hungarian-speaking minority (Ragozin).
In a ceremony attended by Poroshenko on January 5, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gained independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, showing that Ukraine was moving out of Russia’s sphere of influence (“Petro Poroshenko At…”). Poroshenko compared the event to an “Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine” and said Russia was “losing one of the last levers of influence on its former colony” (“President: Tomos is…”). The move directly increased Poroshenko’s approval rating by 4 percent, according to Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives foundation (“Leap of faith…”).
In November 2018, Russia seized Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea and took 24 Ukrainians captive. Poroshenko reacted by proposing martial law in Ukraine’s border regions. His demand met resistance in the Ukrainian parliament, which “refused to rubber stamp the martial law request, instead passing a much watered-down version designed to last only 30 days” (Hockenos). Parliament was not able to override Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, however, which banned Russian males between ages 16 and 60 from entering the country. The Interior Ministry has since maintained the ban, blocking 1,600 Russian men from coming into Ukraine since November (“Poroshenko Ends Martial…”). Showing that the move was unpopular, 60 percent of Ukrainians opposed November’s imposition of martial law (Talmazan).
Conflict in the Donbass
In a February 20 UN meeting, Poroshenko pushed for the deployment of UN Peacekeepers in the Donbass to end the five-year Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Since 2014, over 10,000 people have died in the conflict, about one-third of these being civilian deaths. The conflict has displaced an additional 1.5 million people (“Ukraine asks UN…”). The fact that Poroshenko had not already imposed martial law, even though the Donbass conflict had gone on for five years and claimed many lives, is one of the reasons voters saw Poroshenko’s martial law “as a political move designed to bolster his dire polling ahead of elections” (Talmazan).
Securing international aid is vital for Ukraine to lighten the burden of its $20 billion debt (Turak). In 2015, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted Ukraine a conditional $17.5 billion aid package. While Poroshenko successfully oversaw many of the conditional reforms, the IMF froze the package in April 2017 after he fell behind implementing required anti-corruption measures. In December 2018, the IMF replaced the package with a standby $3.9 billion loan. Securing this loan is a positive for Poroshenko’s presidency, as it opens up Ukraine to aid from the EU and other foreign donors (Williams and Zinets).
Corruption is a major issue that impedes Poroshenko’s path to reelection. After Maidan protesters ousted corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, they voted Poroshenko into office with the hope that he would take “meaningful steps to lock up crooked bureaucrats” (Langley). Since his election, Ukraine’s corruption rating has only “moderately” increased and “transparency activists are [still] routinely harassed, with one dying in an acid attack” (Langley). Further hurting his popularity, Poroshenko’s “name popped up in the Panama Papers,” putting him on the level of other corrupt officials worldwide (Langley).
Running on a campaign motto of “Army, Language, Faith,” Poroshenko has made gains in his uphill battle to reelection (Ragozin). In June 2018, 8.5 percent of Ukrainians said they would re-elect him to presidency compared to 19.5 percent who said they would vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, a gap of over 10 percentage points (Grushetsky). By December 2018, he was trailing Tymoshenko by only 2.3 percentage points, 13.8 percent for Poroshenko compared to 16.1 percent for Tymoshenko (Democratic Initiatives Foundation…).
Since he came into power in 2014, Poroshenko has become increasingly unpopular among Ukrainians. Even though he has wooed some voters with cultural reforms, he has a taken a hit for failing to implement anti-corruption measures. His attempt to increase popularity by flexing the national security muscle scared off voters, as they saw it as a political ploy. Poroshenko has not delivered what voters asked for in 2014, and it has deeply hurt his popularity.
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Yermolenko, Volodymyr. 2018. “Does Poroshenko Have a Chance at a Second Term?” October 1. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/does-poroshenko-have-a-shot-at-a-second-term.