Ukraine’s new leader sounds like an autocrat

May 29, 2014 

The first actions and pronouncements of the new Ukrainian president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, suggest that he intends to be a strong-arm leader in the traditional post-Soviet mold. A worthy adversary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps, but not quite what the pro-European protesters wanted when they overthrew another authoritarian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, just three months ago.

Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only Moldova and two Baltic states settled on a parliamentary republic as their form of government, though this is the dominant model throughout Europe. The rest opted for strong presidents, who quickly evolved into dictators.

“Russia needs a father figure, a monarch, who would be a liege of the Moscow czar,” columnist Vitaly Portnikov wrote earlier this month on Liga.net. “To recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities is to agree that citizens, through the parliament, can have more clout than the leader.”

If Portnikov is right, Moscow is getting its wish in Poroshenko, who talks as though he holds supreme power and has no intention of relinquishing it.

Here is a quote from this would-be monarch and father figure:

“A large part of the government team needs to be changed because the government was formed on the basis of party quotas. I do not accept this principle. I don’t accept that if a party participated (in the revolution), its participation should be rewarded with a quota.”

As a businessman who built up a major confectionery company and a $1.3 billion fortune, Poroshenko knows how to be tough in a crisis, and right now he has to deal with a major one. As soon as his rivals recognized his victory Monday, a military operation to put down the armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine was stepped up.

It is he who will bargain with Putin on overdue payments for Russian gas and on compensation for Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Ukraine wanted more democracy, but what it seems to have gotten is a crisis manager unused to sharing power. Perhaps the traditional, strong post-Soviet medicine will work better now for Ukraine than it did in the past.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a a Moscow-based writer.

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