AFP – Billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko faces a formidable task to end the crisis which has brought Ukraine to the brink of collapse as he prepared Monday to be formally declared the country’s president.
The pro-Western confectionary tycoon trounced his rivals and won close to 54% in Sunday’s vote, results published from over half the constituencies so far showed.
But just hours after his apparent victory, there was a sharp reminder of the huge challenges ahead for Poroshenko as armed separatists who refuse to recognise Kiev’s legitimacy forced the closure of the main airport in the rebel-held eastern city of Donetsk on Monday.
An AFP correspondent saw truckloads of armed men in camouflage gear head to towards the airport and a spokesman for the facility said it now appeared to be under rebel control.
Poroshenko, a 48-year-old former cabinet minister, had said Sunday he would work immediately to end a bloody pro-Russian insurgency that prevented voting across swathes of the industrial east and to fix a recession-hit near bankrupt economy.
“My first decisive step will be aimed at ending the war, ending chaos, and bringing peace to a united and free Ukraine,” he said after polls closed in a vote billed as the most important since Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
“I am certain that our decisive actions will bring fairly quick results,” he said.
The latest results put Poroshenko far ahead of his nearest rival, the divisive former prime minister and Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko with 13%.
It also means he should avoid the need for a 15 June runoff that would have extended political uncertainty and put more pressure on East-West relations that are already at a post-Cold War low. Final results are expected on Monday.
However, while turnout was strong across the capital Kiev and the more pro-European west on Sunday, voting was largely blocked in two eastern regions that make up 15% of the electorate – raising concerns about the legitimacy of Poroshenko’s mandate across the entire country and in Moscow.
The election commission said voting had been suspended by militants in 24 of Ukraine’s 213 constituencies.
But US President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for showing courage by voting in the face of the threat posed by militants who have seized about a dozen cities and towns in a seven-week rebellion.
“Despite provocations and violence, millions of Ukrainians went to the polls throughout the country, and even in parts of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist groups sought to disenfranchise entire regions, some courageous Ukrainians still were able to cast their ballots,” the White House quoted Obama as saying.
Germany said it hoped Moscow would respect the result of the vote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued no immediate comment and instead spent Sunday evening in Belarus watching his country compete in the final of the ice hockey world championship.
He had rejected the authority of Kiev’s Western-backed interim leaders and had only promised to “respect” the outcome of Sunday’s vote.
Poroshenko vowed to pay his first trip to the east where insurgents have proclaimed their own independent republics in a rebellion that has already cost scores of lives.
Former pro-Russian presidential candidate Oleh Tsarov said he would not consider Poroshenko to be the legitimate leader.
“We consider that the winner of the election is president of west Ukraine – he is a half president.”
The ballot was called after Kremlin-allied president Viktor Yanukovych – his corruption-stained regime long a source of discontent – was ousted in February in the bloody climax of months of protests sparked by his rejection of a historic EU pact.
Poroshenko said Ukraine had a “long list of problems” to discuss with Russia through negotiations that should also involve Washington and the European Union.
He also promised to hire a consultant who could help him sell his vast business assets to avoid any possible conflict of interest or corruption allegations.
The ex-Soviet nation on the EU’s doorstep is fighting for its very survival after Putin responded to the popular overthrow of Yanukovych by seizing Crimea and threatening to invade the rest of Ukraine to “protect” the country’s ethnic Russian community.
Putin appeared to make a major concession in the face of more punishing economic sanctions by promising to work with the new Kiev team.
“We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect,” he said Friday.
Russia also said it had started withdrawing from Ukraine’s border around 40,000 soldiers whose presence had raised deep Western suspicions and prompted NATO to send additional fighters to former Soviet satellite states.
“Even Putin will find it difficult to label such a clear result illegitimate,” said Berenberg Bank economist Holger Schmieding.
The new leader will also have to set into motion overdue economic restructuring measures that world lenders are demanding in return for $27bn (€20bn) in aid to stave off bankruptcy.