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The Four Challenges That Will Make Or Break Ukraine’s New President

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"The Four Challenges That Will Make Or Break Ukraine’s New President"

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Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, left, and Vitali Klitschko in a Kiev press conference on Monday

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, left, at a Kyiv press conference on Monday

CREDIT: AP

Four days after pro-European billionaire Petro Poroshenko took office as president of Ukraine, rebels in the town of Sloviansk shot down a military helicopter using a Russian anti-aircraft system, killing 14 Ukrainian soldiers. The attack highlights the array of challenges Poroshenko faces, both long and short term, in navigating Ukraine out of its current crisis. How he succeeds or fails to address these four issues will likely be the deciding factors in how Ukraine moves forward:

1. Ending Conflict in the East

The most immediate test Poroshenko faces is ongoing armed conflict in the largely rebel-controlled Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where clashes between pro-Russia rebels and Kyiv forces have recently escalated. On Monday, hours after rebel troops stormed the Donetsk international airport, Kyiv responded with air strikes and a ground assault, leaving 40 separatists dead and 31 wounded.

The new Ukrainian government pledged to send a second battalion of the National Guard to the east in the wake of the intensified fighting. Poroshenko has vowed to wipe out the rebels, offering amnesty only to those who have not taken up arms against Kyiv. “Nobody in any civilized state will hold negotiations with terrorists,” stated Poroshenko. However, the separatists show no signs of backing down. Thursday’s attack, carried out using a Russian anti-aircraft system, killing 14 including a leading general in Ukraine’s National Guard, the highest-ranking official to die during the crisis.

2. Ensuring economic growth

In a meeting with senior European Union officials on Wednesday, Poroshenko asked for additional time before completing a major economic and political deal linking Ukraine with the E.U. While Poroshenko is almost certain to complete the deal, some observers are worried that implementation of austerity measures called for by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of the package of loans it desperately needs to turn around its ailing economy will turn an already dire economic situation in Ukraine from bad to worse. The “economic restructuring” Ukraine must accept in exchange for the IMF’s $17 billion loan include “phasing out energy subsidies” and cutting down on pension spending, according to a December IMF press release that outlined the plan.

Energy subsidies are one of the means the Ukrainian government has consistently used to keep its poorest citizens afloat, allowing Ukrainians to heat their homes and businesses that depend on cheap energy to keep offering jobs. Eliminating them could cause energy prices to rise by up to 425 percent. This rise in prices, combined with pension cuts, could push Ukraine’s already suffering economy over the edge and incite new outbreaks of civil unrest.

3. Rebuilding Relations with Russia

Poroshenko must balance his desire to reunify the country and check the separatists with the necessity of normalizing relations with Russia, its powerful neighbor to the west. Both Kyiv and Moscow have expressed willingness to reopen communication. “We shouldn’t miss the chance that we have now to establish an equal dialogue of mutual respect considering the vote that has taken place, the results of which Russia is ready to respect,” stated Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Monday. Poroshenko has also emphasized the importance of reestablishing relations with Russia, who he called a valuable partner.

Unfortunately, neither side seems as willing to abandon force in favor of dialogue as they profess. Russia has stepped up its military presence along Ukraine’s Eastern border and sent planes into Ukrainian airspace earlier this week. Poroshenko in seeming retaliation called on the U.S. to increase sanctions against Russia and give Ukraine direct military aid in what he described as “a new security treaty exactly like Lend-Lease” of the Second World War, in order to “build up Ukraine’s armed forces.”

4. Achieving political unity and legitimacy

“You can consider it a referendum. Ninety-six per cent of Ukrainians voted for the unity of the country… So the President has a unique chance to unite the country and has a level of support which he never had before,” said Poroshenko in his first interview after being elected. While Poroshenko came in with a strong 54 percent of the vote, this figure can be deceptive: turnout was less than 10 percent in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, and below 45 percent in most other provinces.

Additionally, despite Poroshenko’s belief that the current “parliament is not representing anybody,” he still must work with the loose governing coalition in power and convince members to pass unpopular austerity measures, reform the constitution, and dissolve itself before the next elections. Last Sunday’s vote may signal a wave of popular support for Ukraine’s new president, but his ability to bring together different factions with competing demands under a united Ukraine will prove his real testing ground.

For the time being, Poroshenko will likely be buoyed by the tide of popular support that put him into office. However, if the new president proves unable to simultaneously end armed conflict in the east and mend fractured relations with Russia, while also uniting a divided parliament and passing unpopular austerity measures, the honeymoon could end quickly. This in turn could see Ukraine’s political crisis extend past the nearly six months that it has already lasted.

Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress

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