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Can a Chocolate Mogul Save Ukraine?

Petro Poroshenko

Photograph by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Petro Poroshenko

Ukrainians voted for billionaire chocolate mogul Petro Poroshenko to become their next president during Sunday elections. A political veteran who has worked in both pro-Russian and pro-Western governments, Poroshenko won over 53 percent of votes, insuring that a runoff election will be unnecessary.

Though the election itself constituted a step toward bringing a sense of order and legitimacy to the Ukrainian government, the president elect is faced with the task of reuniting a regionally fractured country.

During a Sunday night press conference, Poroshenko said his first trip will be to the Donbas area, large sections of which have been under the control of anti-government separatists for over a month. Promising to restore peace and order to Ukraine’s manufacturing hub, Poroshenko said that amnesty will be on the table for rebels who have carried arms, but not for those that have used them.

Clashes between anti-government rebels and Ukrainian military forces have grown increasingly violent in the past weeks as the Ukrainian military, along with privately organized militias, have tried, with little success, to regain control over the country’s eastern regions. Poroshenko did not offer specifics of how he plans to bring the region back under control.

During Sunday’s election, the majority of polling stations in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which make up Donbas, were closed due to safety concerns, preventing the estimated 10 percent of Ukrainians who live in the region from casting ballots. A law recently passed by Parliament allows elections to take place in the country even during times of war.

The loosely organized anti-government rebels in Donbas say the government in Kiev is not legitimate and demand a federalization program, which would grant them the right to secede from Ukraine.

Though Russia has denied any involvement in the uprising, the presence of Russian tanks along the Ukrainian border and its rhetoric about defending Russian-speaking populations have cast doubts on Russia’s claim.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to work with Ukraine’s new government, which—if he follows through—could leave the rebels without moral support.

Poroshenko has expressed willingness to work with Russia, though he said he would refuse to budge on the issue of Crimea, which he considers occupied by Russian forces.

Russia is also still insisting that Ukraine honor its multibillion-dollar gas debt from a trade deal that was broken off when President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. If Ukraine refuses to repay this debt, Russia would have an excuse to hit Ukraine with economic sanctions that could further hurt the country’s crippled economy. However,  Russia could incur retaliation in the form of further economic sanctions from the West.

As part of Ukraine’s pivot towards Europe, the country will receive a $17 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund. The country will have to undergo a series of economic reforms that will almost certainly be unpopular, including an increase in taxes and domestic gas prices.

In Kiev, Poroshenko will have to honor his promise to hold parliamentary elections by the end of this year.

While Poroshenko’s small political party, Solidarity, gives him little influence in parliament, he is teaming up with Vitaliy Klitchko, who leads the Udar (“Punch”) party, which might give the new president sufficient traction in parliament to engineer snap elections.

According to the Ukrainian constitution, a president can call snap parliamentary elections if a coalition cannot be formed within a month. If members of Udar, Poroshenko’s Solidarity party, and sympathetic factions of Yulia Tymashenko’s Batkivshchyna party make it impossible to form a coalition, a new election can be held.

Snap parliamentary elections would refresh a legislature that still contains many former allies of the ousted Yanukovych.

To make good on other campaign promises, Poroshenko is faced with the prospect of selling all of his businesses, which range from confectionary company Roshen to bus manufacturing and auto groups.

Poroshenko said he will not sell Channel Five, a TV station he founded in 2004. Channel Five earned a reputation as an opposition station for its coverage of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. During the EuroMaidan protests, the station was one of the first  to come out against former  Yanukovych’s government.

Jacobsen is a contributor for Bloomberg Businessweek in Kiev.

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