Big powers must allow Ukrainians to decide their own future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 4:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 4:43am

Ukraine's president-elect, tycoon Petro Poroshenko, has enormous challenges. Even as he tries to wrest back parts of the country's east seized by pro-Russian separatists, he has to fix the broken economy and end rampant corruption. Russian, US and EU influence looms large. The democratic mandate won in last Sunday's elections is the incoming leader's most persuasive weapon.

Poroshenko's win ends seven months of political turmoil for Ukraine. His taking more than 50 per cent of the vote negated the need for a run-off poll and he will be sworn in in a matter of weeks. Russia can no longer claim that the government in Kiev is an "illegal regime", as it has been saying since pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by street protests in February. A decision to side with Russia over the EU on a trade deal sparked the demonstrations; his removal prompted secessionist moves in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

The immediate priority is to restore stability in the eastern provinces of Donesk and Luhansk, where armed separatists prevented polling and fighting with Ukrainian soldiers has left dozens dead. Russia, although unswayed over its annexation of Crimea in March, has refrained from publicly endorsing the secessionists' actions. That is as it should be; the way ahead for Ukraine has to be for Ukrainians to decide, not Russia, the US, EU and others driven by self-interest.

Poroshenko's decision to open fresh negotiations with the EU has to be respected by Moscow. But the new leader also has to reach out to Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whose needs have been largely ignored since the country's independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. A succession of corrupt governments, of which Poroshenko has been part, have enriched the elite and harmed the economy.

The presidential election was largely free and fair. Poroshenko was voted in by a record number of Ukrainians. A fresh start by all sides is the only viable way forward. Without it, Ukraine's future will be bleak.