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Candy tycoon Poroshenko wins Ukraine presidential vote

May 25, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For much more about today’s voting in Ukraine, we’re joined now from Kiev by NewsHour’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Margaret Warner. She’s inside the Central Election Commission there. We’ve heard about Poroshenko’s win. Why is this margin of victory so significant?

MARGARET WARNER: Hari, it’s huge because the more and more we talk to voters here in Ukraine, the more and more there was a ground swell that this country is in such difficult and desperate shape, that it needs a new president now. It can’t even afford to wait three more weeks to have a run-off.

And so I’ve talked to voters who had different emotional choices among the 21 candidates, but Poroshenko ran this campaign in part based on inevitability, and the more and more it grew, the more and more voters decided, you know, as one young man said to me today we’re on the verge of war. Putin has designs on Ukraine, and we need somebody who can take charge now.

So that’s why the margin is important and also the turnout numbers. If you look at that screen, which you may not be able to see behind me, it was huge not only in the 70 percent and over in the west, but even in the central part, not only around Kiev, but in a lot of heavily Russian speaking areas. The only two gray zones where they don’t have enough data are the two areas that the Russian-backed separatists really ran this campaign of intimidation that we reported on so much this week. So that is also significant. It makes his win unassailable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are some of the choices that the new president faces with the separatists in the east?

MARGARET WARNER: Great question, Hari. I actually raced over to his headquarters tonight after the exit polls came out, and he was just speaking to the press. And he said my first visit will be to the Donbass, it’s called. That’s the coal, steel, metal producing region in the east, Donetsk and Lugansk. And he said I want to reassure people they have a place in Ukraine. They are the poorest region of the country, but we’ll respect their Russian language. We’re going to have decentralized power.

So on the one hand he’s putting out a hand, and he’s saying they’ll be amnesty even for separatists. He seemed to be suggesting even armed ones. But then he said, but those who have killed people, there will not be amnesty, and we’re going to, that will not continue. He’s made it clear that he wants a more muscular approach to the really armed separatists, to the Russian operatives they believe are operating there, and we heard some who are Russian-backed or Russian-paid ultra separatists. And also these criminal gangs and criminal elements that quite frankly, and we’ve met some of them, were hired on by that crowd.

So I think you’re going to see public support for doing this in the rest of Ukraine, even if it costs some lives, to go ahead and take them on militarily. I’m not saying tomorrow. He’s going to make an offer, but time is running out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, what do we know about him personally besides that he made all of his millions and billions in selling chocolate?

MARGARET WARNER: And you know funny thing, Hari, I just learned last night he’s actually diabetic and can’t eat his own chocolate, which is fantastic. He made billions in chocolate and in many other businesses. He’s known though as a pragmatist, a very pragmatic businessman. He served in different governments, way on different sides of the spectrum. He’s been finance minister. He’s been foreign minister. He’s been speaker of the house. He does a lot of business in Russia even though Putin shut down one of his big chocolate plants when he sided with the uprising in the Maidan, you know, over the winter.

On the other hand, he does a lot of business with Europeans. And folks we talked to today liked that combination in him. He doesn’t stir deep feelings, but there is a sense that he’s a very pragmatic guy, that’s he not going to take Ukraine over a cliff in one direction or another. And that he probably is the most astute and savvy of the bunch.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so you’ve been reporting from Ukraine for the past week from the eastern part of the country. Now you’re in the capital. How do you distill the differences in these two big regions?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you mean today or in general? I mean the differences in the regions are pretty amazing. We’ve been over in the east, you know, a lot, in March and now. And it really is poor coal miners, I don’t know, think of, you know, Pittsburgh or West Virginia in the 50s, and they work very, very hard. And there’s so much corruption and so much skimming of the subsidies that they don’t see much of it.

Whereas the rest of Ukraine is really moving in a European model. I say today the difference was surreal. The voting places in Kiev were absolutely, ran like clockwork. And at the same time I was calling and texting with officials I knew back in Donetsk and Lugansk, and it was chaos, and most of them didn’t even dare to open.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Margaret Warner joining us from Kiev. Thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Hari.