The View From Here: The Poroshenko Dilemma

Volodymyr Kish.

There has been a vociferous debate on the Internet this past week stemming from a provocative article written by Alexander Motyl and published by the Atlantic Council think tank on January 16. Motyl is a political science professor and Eastern European expert at Rutgers University near New York city. In his article, Motyl puts forth the thesis that President Poroshenko deserves far more credit than is being given to him for the positive changes and improvements that he has implemented in Ukraine during his presidency. He further suggests that Ukrainians should re-elect him in the upcoming Presidential elections rather than risk destabilization or regression by electing any of the other leading populist candidates.

These views in themselves are not particularly surprising and are shared by many political analysts and journalists familiar with the Ukrainian political scene. What set the virtual Internet tongues wagging was a blistering rebuttal to this in an op-ed piece in the Kyiv Post, the prominent English language newspaper published in Kyiv. The article pulled no punches, characterizing Motyl’s analysis as “strong hallucinations”, “falsehoods”, “nonsense” and “deep disconnect from reality”, amongst other language.

As you may gather, the Kyiv Post is no admirer of President Poroshenko, but this type of attack on Professor Motyl, a respected and knowledgeable scholar, was unusual, to say the least. I do not always agree with Motyl’s views, but I hold the man and his understanding of contemporary Ukrainian politics in high regard and am always willing to listen to his views. The language of the Kyiv Post attack is more one of an emotional rant rather than that of a reasoned debate. It spawned a heated dialogue on the Internet between Motyl’s supporters and detractors, that has overshadowed the main theme, namely whether Poroshenko deserves to be re-elected or turfed out of office.

In many ways, this reflects much of the current debate within Ukraine itself, with emotion often eclipsing a rational assessment of what has or hasn’t been accomplished during Poroshenko’s term in office. Poroshenko’s supporters, including many of those in the diaspora, have no difficulty in presenting a long list of positives – rebuilding and reform of the armed forces, Orthodox church re-unification, health care reform, educational improvements, economic stability, and more. His critics similarly can rattle off an equally long list of failures – continuing endemic corruption, a significantly compromised judiciary, oligarchic control of the economy, failure to prosecute the perpetrators of Yanukovich era crimes, etc. Is the cup half full or half empty? One can make a strong case for either side, and in the end, people’s emotions and gut feel will likely play the deciding role in determining who gets elected as the next President of Ukraine.

The big risk in all this of course, is if Poroshenko loses, will his replacement be a better choice to ensure Ukraine’s future? Of the likely dozens of candidates that will be vying for his job, very few have any realistic chances of being elected because of how the Presidential election system works. According to all recent polls, no current candidate will be able to gain an absolute majority in the first round of voting.

The second round will have the top two vote getters facing off against each other. Most experts and most recent polls suggest that the likeliest scenario will have Poroshenko facing off against Yulia Tymoshenko in the second round of voting. Although there may be far better candidates in many people’s eyes than these two, the reality is that, barring dramatic new developments, they stand virtually no chance of gaining enough votes to make it into the runoff round. The question that Ukrainians will then need ask as they go to the polls is whether Tymoshenko would be a better President than Poroshenko has been and is likely to be in the future.

Most Ukrainians are very familiar with Tymoshenko’s temperament and her stormy career in Ukrainian politics. She has both fanatical supporters as well as detractors. She is a populist in every sense of the word with a somewhat murky history as one of Ukraine’s original oligarchs. Her electoral program is full of bold promises that her opponents characterize as either dangerous or unrealistic. Are Ukrainians willing to take the risk of putting her into power or will they settle for the known limitations of what Poroshenko represents?

My biggest regret is that Ukrainian voters do not have better and more clear-cut choices for President. Though all of them make bold promises, none seem to have a comprehensive strategy or detailed program to fix the country that is socially and fiscally responsible, that is realistic, and which addresses the core deficiencies of the current constitution and governmental structures. Further, few if any of the candidates inspire any degree of trust in their honesty and integrity. I don’t have a vote in this election, but if I did, I would probably cast it for Poroshenko. There don’t seem to be any angels running, and the devil you know is likely better than the one you don’t.