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Can Ukraine’s Poroshenko deliver on lofty expectations?

May 26, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff from Kiev for an update on the latest fighting and chaos in Eastern Ukraine. Warner also discusses the challenges facing the likely future president, Petro Poroshenko, as he lays out plans to both unite the country and strengthen ties with Europe and Russia.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke to Margaret a short time ago.

Welcome, Margaret.

So tell us what the latest is on the situation in Donetsk. You were there just until a few days ago. What do you know?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, I have been able to text back and forth with a senior member of the Donetsk government and able to confirm some reports and knock down others.

It is true that, in fact, since that tape we just finished was filed, the authorities, finally, the military has been able to reach the airport, though the fact that it took them an entire day is quite remarkable.

This senior official also confirmed to me that it is true that the Donetsk parliament, Rada, sent out a tweet to all citizens of Donetsk saying, citizens, stay off the streets; there’s fighting in the streets.

There are unconfirmed reports that the train station where we were just three days ago has been set on fire. I have not been able to confirm that. What is clear is that it’s really chaotic there. There are reports of between 30 and 200 dead. Again, we’re not going to have the full picture until tomorrow at least.

But it’s not only chaotic, but the Ukrainian military has clearly stepped up the pace. What’s interesting is, how much does this have to do with the election of Poroshenko, who hasn’t even been officially confirmed? He is not commander in chief. He is not president.

But I am told that he is being treated as one, and he was very, very tough this morning, as you saw in our tape piece, very tough about taking on armed separatists. And two people close to the situation said to me today, look, letter of the law, he’s not commander in chief. In the spirit of the law, he already is. And the president of this country controls all the security forces, from the army to the intelligence to the prosecutors.

And it was clear to officials here in Kiev who have been reluctant to move on the separatists, for fear citizens would be hurt, took yesterday’s vote as a clear endorsement by the people that they want this situation cleared up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, you have covered a number of political leaders over the years, in the U.S., overseas. What are your impressions of Poroshenko?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, interesting, Judy. You and I both have done that.

I have to say that he came in on zero sleep overnight and he gave this tour de force press conference this morning, where he moved easily among English, Russian and Ukrainian languages. He had a very — as you saw in the piece, a very tough message for the domestic audience for cleaning up the separatists, and we’re also going to join the E.U. and get this E.U. association agreement going.

But then when he switched to talking about the Russians, he was much more measured. People close to him explained it this way. They said, look, this is a man, a successful businessman with business in Russia, business in Europe. He’s been financed — a finance — a chief finance official. He’s been a foreign minister.

He understands that diplomatic talk is very different from talking to a domestic audience. And he’s comfortable doing all of that. And so that is both his strength, potentially his Achilles’ heel, because it’s raised huge expectations that he’s going to be able to navigate through these difficult waters.

But I have to say, he was very American style. He was very blunt. He was very direct, didn’t waste any his words. In his English, I think you would see and hear someone that can speak to the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, excuse me.

The Americans, Margaret, and Ukrainian and others you talk to, what do they think his biggest challenges are?

MARGARET WARNER: They think his biggest challenges are his Achilles’ heel. His strength is his Achilles’ heel. That is, he has to balance constituencies. OK, he says, I’m taking on corruption. That’s at the bottom of all our problems.

Well, he’s one of this oligarch class, albeit it more self-made than most, who benefited from cozy, sweetheart deals, inclusion with corrupt officials. So — and they’re relying a lot on these oligarchs now to help turn this country toward Europe.

On the other hand, he’s got this Maidan crowd — this is the Maidan behind me, Independence Square, where you have got a newly empowered civic society, civil society, sort of 30-something-year-old businesspeople who are seasoned, who have some experience, who have seen this movie before, and been disappointed, and they’re going to hold him to account.

The other big challenge he has is, of course, balancing the interests of dealing with the Russians, which Ukraine desperately needs for oil and gas, for dealing with Crimea, with his promises to the public here that he’s going to move them toward Europe and he’s going to get tough on the separatists. So those are his two biggest challenges, as officials here see it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, you have also been talking to some American observers there. What are they saying about Poroshenko?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, some of them — this was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, current Senator Kelly Ayotte and others.

Of the candidates they met with, they were most impressed with Poroshenko, because he seemed actually to have plans for carrying out some the things he wants, and he also seemed to know exactly what he wanted from the Americans. And it was not just military help, but technical assistance in the cleaning-up-corruption angle, and that was helping building a judiciary that doesn’t depend and rely on bribery, and helping design software that actually help them detect — financial software — corrupt business dealings.

The thing that worries American officials is that Ukraine will revert to what it’s always been doing for the last 23 years — it’s only 23 years of independence — which is that the people attracted to government, as a former State Department official said to me here, are really motivated by the desire for power, money, or if they have already got money, than ego, and they quickly fall to squabbling among themselves and power grabbing between the president and prime minister.

And so the question is whether the threat from Russia and the sort of sense of urgency here is going to make it different this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner reporting from Ukraine, thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Judy.