A fight for Kiev

The presidential campaign has been animated by the debate on Ukraine’s place in the world

The pro-West Ukrainian oligarch, President Petro Poroshenko, has a battle at hand in his re-election bid on March 31. Given the crowded arena, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a run-off cannot be ruled out. The President’s modest record in office, however, may not entirely be held against him, given the difficult geopolitical backdrop. The continuing conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine exerts a heavy toll. Over 10,000 lives have been lost since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Millions have been displaced, with the resolution envisaged in the Minsk Accord proving elusive. The government has signed a free-trade pact and a separate association agreement with the European Union, and got strong economic and military backing from Washington and Brussels. Memberships of the EU and NATO are among the government’s long-term objectives. Ukraine has also been rewarded with an IMF aid package worth billions of dollars for improved governance and enacting anti-corruption legislation. But the increase in the price of household gas and other conditionalities stemming from IMF assistance have fuelled popular discontent.Mr. Poroshenko has been especially concerned about not loosening his grip on power or political legitimacy since Moscow’s recognition of polls last year to the breakaway provinces of Ukraine. When tensions flared up in November after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on the disputed Azov Sea, Mr. Poroshenko imposed a national emergency. The move was criticised by the opposition as an attempt to capitalise on the conflict with an eye on elections. Opponents are anxious to tap into the popular frustration with the prevailing situation. For his part, the President has adopted an overtly nationalist posture in recent months. Billboards in support of Mr. Poroshenko extol the army’s role during the conflict, besides carrying invocations to the country’s faith and language. The reference to religion is evidently meant to celebrate the recognition the Ukrainian Orthodox Church won late last year as an autonomous establishment. Independence from the Russian Orthodox Church is a watershed after centuries within the larger fold. Similarly, importance is sought to be attached to asserting the separate identity of the Ukrainian language, predominantly spoken in the western part of the country, over Russian. An exaggerated sense of the distinctness of cultural symbols may at best prove politically expedient in a society with a long pluralist legacy. Mr. Poroshenko should exercise caution not to overplay these issues. His opponent Ms. Tymoshenko is expected to be the frontrunner in the first round of voting on March 31. While she favours engagement with the West, her populist stance, both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts, has not impressed observers in Brussels or in Washington. A close contest is in the offing. But whatever the choice the Ukrainian voters make, their problems are unlikely to disappear in a hurry.