The Toronto Star

26 May 2014

By Chrystia Freeland

The clear outcome of Sunday's presidential election was a validation of Ukraine's so-called "dignity revolution," but many challenges remain for the country's new president.

Sunday's election was the last day of the maidan, the remarkable, self-organized, unanticipated popular uprising that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych's kleptocracy in Ukraine. To Ukrainians, the meaning and purpose of the maidan was clear from the start: this was a struggle, built from the grassroots and rising up, for democracy and the rule of law. It was, as Ukrainians described it, their "dignity revolution."

But outside Ukraine, the significance of the maidan and its goals were more ambivalently interpreted. The Kremlin, which fears Ukraine's revolt against kleptocracy could spread north, tried to brand Ukraine's struggle as either a fascist coup or a Yugoslav-style ethno-cultural civil war, or both.

Sunday's vote settles this argument for good.

We see this in the strong and festively patriotic turnout. Even in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, where I spent much of election day, people came to the polls in embroidered shirts, blue and yellow dresses and with blue and yellow nail polish. At some polls, voters sang the national anthem after casting their ballot or came to vote wearing blue-and-yellow flags draped over their shoulders as capes. And, among Ukraine's digitally savvy hipsters, who started the maidan uprising back in November, an Internet meme has been spreading of cats wearing embroidered shirts and flowered wreaths. Time, surely, for a Buzzfeed feline listicle!

We see this in the strategic voting. For the first time since independence, Ukraine elected a president on the first ballot. It was a high hurdle: to win outright, a candidate needed to attract more than 50 per cent of the vote, a challenge in a field of 17 candidates.

Petro Poroshenko achieved that overwhelming support not because he is a charismatic campaigner or a massively popular politician. He won because he supported the maidan from the start, he is competent and he was the front-runner. His campaign slogan was "to stop the war, let's elect a president on the first ballot." Ukrainians overwhelmingly accepted that argument — Poroshenko will be Ukraine's first president elected with strong backing in all regions of the country.

As Dragutin Mate, a member of parliament in Slovenia, put it at a meeting of parliamentary election observers that I participated in on Monday morning, "I view this election as a referendum on Ukraine, not as a competition between parties."

But there was one partisan aspect to the race that is worth noting, particularly outside the country. From the outset, the Kremlin caricatured the maidan as a far-right fascist movement. This propaganda was so effective that even foreign observers generally sympathetic to Kyiv took to lecturing Ukrainians not to give in to the dark, nationalistic impulses the maidan threatened to unleash.

Ukrainians, whose revolution was launched with a Facebook post by a Muslim, Afghan refugee and who have just elected a president who didn't learn Ukrainian until the late 1990s, who speaks Russian at home and who comes from the Russian-speaking south, understood this was never at issue.

Sunday's ballot should end this debate everywhere else, too — Vadim Rabinovich, an independent candidate who is chairman of the European Jewish Parliament, won 2 per cent of the vote. That isn't much, but it is more than either of the two far-right candidates whom the Kremlin portrayed as on the verge of seizing power. They each polled barely 1 per cent. (Amusingly, one Russian television channel actually broadcast purported exit polls on Sunday night alleging that one of these two candidates was in the lead.)

President-elect Poroshenko has rightly identified his first job as dealing with the separatists in the Donbass, who greeted his victory with intensified fighting.

Poroshenko's task will be incredibly difficult. Donetsk and Luhansk are not ethnically or religiously distinct from the rest of the country, and in the 23 years of Ukrainian statehood the area has never had an indigenous separatist movement, nor has there ever been a drive to break away and join the Russian Federation.

But civil society, not strong to begin with, was uniquely hollowed out in the Donbass during the reign of President Yanukovych, whose political clan ruled and enriched itself there like feudal nobility. Add to the mix well-armed and trained Russian mercenaries and a Russian media campaign aimed at terrorizing the local people and, as I saw on a visit to Donetsk over the weekend, you have a volatile and frightened place.

This is a powder-keg created by the Kremlin, but it will be Kyiv's task to defuse it. Ukrainian voters wisely and maturely took the first step with a decisive vote on Sunday. They chose a new president and gave him the clear mandate he needs. Canada and the world have a strategic and moral interest in Poroshenko's success. He, and the people of Ukraine who elected him, deserve our support.

Chrystia Freeland is the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre. She was a member of the Canadian parliamentary delegation to the OSCE group that monitored the election in Ukraine.