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.
In the recent presidential election, chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko beat out 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 favored by Ukraine’s elite. 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.
No wonder some in eastern Ukraine doubt that this exchange of leaders was worth a revolution. That’s why Poroshenko needs to lead the way in forcing a separation between politics and business—he has promised to sell his business interests if he won—while finding ways to end the escalating war in the east. Decentralizing power and fiscal authority from Kiev could help undermine the appeal of the separatists. 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.