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Ukraine’s president-elect promises stepped-up response to separatists

May 26, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The winner of yesterday’s Ukrainian election had no time today to bask in the light of victory, as heavy fighting broke out in the country’s east.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in the capital, Kiev, and she filed this report.

MARGARET WARNER: Ukraine’s presumptive president-elect, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, strode into a late-morning press conference in Kiev with a daunting lead in the partial vote count, and delivered starkly different messages for Russia and for the separatists in Ukraine who claim allegiance to Moscow.

Standing next to Kiev’s newly elected mayor, a Maidan uprising leader and former prizefighter Vitali Klitschko, Poroshenko said his first trip as president would be to the east, seeking to reunite the badly fractured country.

Yet he pledged to go after the armed separatist fighters who have taken over parts of the industrial region known as the Donbass, where intimidation and attacks on election sites kept turnout in the area below 20 percent yesterday.

PRESIDENT- ELECT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine: They just murder. They’re just bandits. They’re just a killer. They’re just a terrorist.

MARGARET WARNER: Poroshenko, who isn’t in charge yet, nonetheless vowed that the Kiev security forces’ so-called anti-terrorist operations would be stepped up in the coming hours.

PRESIDENT- ELECT PETRO POROSHENKO: They don’t have any interest to speak with nobody, the same way like Somalian pirates. These people are representing nobody. These people just want to — everyone afraid of them. That’s only way how they can survive. Don’t give them any chance, because we will fight, but for the trust of the people of Donbass.

MARGARET WARNER: As he spoke, heavily armed militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic had seized Donetsk Airport. Pitched fighting continued throughout the afternoon. Reports from the scene said Ukrainian air force launched airstrikes, and the Defense Ministry said paratroopers had landed on the field.

PRESIDENT- ELECT PETRO POROSHENKO: Concerning the relationship with Russia, please believe nothing changed during the night.

MARGARET WARNER: Poroshenko’s tone was a lot more measured though when he spoke of relating to Ukraine’s largest and most influential neighbor, saying he expects to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the first half of June.

PRESIDENT- ELECT PETRO POROSHENKO: Me and Mr. Putin know each other quite well, I think that would be immediately from the very first meeting the very important results, because people in the east are waiting for these results.

MARGARET WARNER: Putin has recently toned down his rhetoric about Ukraine, and said he would respect the outcome of the election.

In Moscow today, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said much the same, but he did not promise to help curb the separatists.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): As President Putin said a few times, we are ready for dialogue with Kiev representatives. We are also ready for dialogue with Petro Poroshenko. We will respect the will of the Ukrainian people. The most important thing for the current authorities is to treat their own citizens with respect. MARGARET WARNER: Among Ukrainians today and yesterday at the polls, we found noticeable support for tougher action in the east, even if it means loss of life.

We spoke with Danylo Danielyko outside a Kiev polling place.

Do you think that he should use greater military force to take back those areas in the east in which this Donetsk People’s Republic has set up — has occupied buildings and taken over territory?

DANYLO DANIELYKO (through interpreter): Separatists should be eliminated, period.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if they’re Ukrainian?

DANYLO DANIELYKO (through interpreter): It’s hard to say. Even if they’re Ukrainian citizens, they are not true Ukrainians.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, first-time voter Ivanna Bober said Poroshenko must follow words with action on many fronts.

IVANNA BOBERU (through interpreter): I have gone voting and I really want for better changes to happen in Ukraine, not with words and promises, but with real active changes, since young people have laid down their lives for this.

MARGARET WARNER: Incoming Mayor Klitschko said today that, while those killed in the Maidan uprising here must be honored, the square needs to be cleared for normal life to return to the city. That didn’t sit well with Aleksey Sotnik.

ALEKSEY SOTNIK (through interpreter): I will stand here until the end. For what did people die? For this new crowd to take their seats, and that’s it? If they’re starting to get rid of Maidan, then they are very mistaken.

MARGARET WARNER: Only one of many challenges Poroshenko and his team face in the weeks to come.