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Get behind Ukraine's new leader

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Petro Poroshenko

EFREM LUKATSKY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Petro Poroshenko

Ukraine's jubilant new president Petro Poroshenko on Monday said his first priority is to seek peace in the rebellious eastern districts while, almost simultaneously, his military unloaded air strikes on Donetsk's airport, bombing pro-Russian forces fighting to free the region from the country's control.

Mr. Poroshenko is professing a willingness to negotiate, including with President Vladimir Putin, but also mustering the muscle to bring its separatist Russian-speaking populations back into the fold.

Monday's election was the best possible result for the West, and for the Ukrainian people at large. More than 60 per cent of the electorate turned out and gave the chocolate-maker billionaire a decisive victory, at more than 55 per cent support. His closest rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, received 12 per cent support.

It means the hard work of reunifying Ukraine, steering it toward economic stabilization can get underway. Mr. Poroshenko, the country's former foreign minister, is sympathetic to the West and wants to solidify ties to Europe. Now the West can refocus its efforts to keep Ukraine from slipping back into the grasp of Russia, with its ready supply of aid and natural gas.

The clear win averted, as was the popular intent, any need for a second run at the polls, a prospect the country could ill afford either financially or in its fragile, but tenacious stand against a rapacious northern Russian neighbour keen to seize upon separatist sentiment.

Mr. Poroshenko has laid out his to-do list. He said he will sign the economic portion of an agreement with the European Union, abandoned by his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year in the face of Russian retaliatory threats. Mr. Yanukovych's move triggered the Euromaidan uprising that overthrew the government, and led to Russia's move into Crimea.

For his part, Mr. Putin said he would respect the results. A good sign, even though few voters turned out in the eastern districts, which hold five million of Ukraine's total 35-million population. In the violent Donetsk district the few polls that tried to open were immediately shuttered amid gun fire from terrorists. Still, with the help of independent election observers, 350 from Canada alone, voting took place in 200 of Ukraine's 215 electoral districts.

It is clear the country's new leader will be no pliable puppet for Russia, which insists it is only interested in protecting the language and cultural rights of Ukraine's Russian-speaking people. The immediate stumbling block will be the future of Crimea, which Mr. Poroshenko has said must be brought back into his country's fold. But there is also the matter of referendums held in the fractious eastern districts, which sought greater independence from Ukraine. The votes were promoted by pro-Russian populations who naturally see their interests better served going east, but found some support among other residents who were deeply uneasy with the maidan revolt that upended the democratically elected national government.

Mr. Poroshenko's emphasis on negotiation, his offer of amnesty to those who will drop their weapons, is a path that Canada, the U.S. and European nations can encourage. The support of the West, and its institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, are key to strengthening Mr. Poroshenko's hand in those talks. Ukraine needs stalwart allies to get out from underneath its crushing public debt that can kill its efforts to rebuild.

The way forward will be a delicate balancing act, offering just enough so Ukraine itself can guide its future, while leaving something on the table to calm the anxieties of a Russian bear easily roused at the prospect of a powerful Western alliance rising on its flank.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2014 A8

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