Petro Poroshenko, billionaire confectioner and crisis manager. Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ukraine's Autocratic New President

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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The first actions and pronouncements of the new Ukrainian president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, suggest that he intends to be a strong-arm leader in the traditional post-Soviet mold. A worthy adversary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps, but not quite what the pro-European protesters wanted when they overthrew another authoritarian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, just three months ago.

Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only Moldova and two Baltic states -- Estonia and, to a lesser extent, Lithuania -- settled on a parliamentary republic as their form of government, though this is the dominant model throughout Europe. The rest opted for strong presidents, who quickly evolved into dictators in Central Asia, Russia and Belarus.

One result of Ukraine's bloody revolt against Yanukovich was a shift away from presidential rule. By bringing back the 2004 constitution, the parliament gave itself the right to form the cabinet. The provisional government was formed on party quotas, and it was widely expected that the president would turn into more of a ceremonial figure. That, the thinking went, would make it harder for Moscow to subvert and corrupt the Ukrainian leader as it supposedly did with Yanukovych, who now lives in Russia.

"Russia needs a father figure, a monarch, who would be a liege of the Moscow czar," columnist Vitaly Portnikov wrote earlier this month on "To recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities is to agree that citizens, through the parliament, can have more clout than the leader."

If Portnikov is right, Moscow is getting its wish in Poroshenko, who beat his nearest rival by about 40 percentage points in Sunday's election. He talks as though he holds supreme power and has no intention of relinquishing it. Here are some quotes from this would-be monarch and father figure:

A large part of the government team needs to be changed because the government was formed on the basis of party quotas. I do not accept this principle. I don't accept that if a party participated [in the revolution], its participation should be rewarded with a quota. (As quoted in Segodnya newspaper).
I am certain it is the president who must today extend guarantees to the residents of Donbas [in rebellious eastern Ukraine] and then bear responsibility for carrying them out. Guarantees of security, protection for the Russian-speaking populations, guarantees of the decentralization of power. (As quoted in Novaya Gazeta).
The president will be very strong. You know why? Because of the level of popular support and trust that you will see. Maidan [protesters] will not affect the president even if some people want that a lot. Otherwise Maidan will turn from the people's will into a trivial political technology, and I know how to fight against technology. (As quoted in Novaya Gazeta).
Who gave you the right to interpret my constitution? (To Russian journalist Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant Daily).

As a businessman who built up a major confectionery company, Roshen, and a $1.3 billion fortune, Poroshenko knows how to be tough in a crisis, and right now he has to deal with a major one. As soon as his rivals recognized his victory on Monday, a military operation to put down the armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine was stepped up, with heavy fighting in the city of Donetsk, where Poroshenko has vowed to go on his first presidential trip. It is he who will bargain with Putin on overdue payments for Russian gas and on compensation for Russia's invasion of Crimea.

Ukraine wanted more democracy, but what it seems to have gotten is a crisis manager unused to sharing power. Perhaps the traditional, strong post-Soviet medicine will work better now for Ukraine than it did in the past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at