KIEV, Ukraine—Petro Poroshenko, a candidate for president of Ukraine, is leading in the polls ahead of the election, scheduled for May 25. A successful businessman—nicknamed the “Chocolate King” for the fortune he made in the confectionary business—Poroshenko has held government posts and participated in the Maidan, the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko, who met with Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday, took time out from campaigning this past week to speak with Lally Weymouth about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emotions, U.S. support, and how to avoid another Crimea. Excerpts:
How did your meeting with Vice President Biden go?
We were talking about Ukraine and its challenges. Maybe this is the most important time in Ukrainian history.
What did you tell him?
This challenge is not just about destabilization in the south and east—it is a challenge for Ukraine’s future. We have to speak about the modernization of the country, the problem of reforming it, about having zero tolerance to corruption, and the association agreement with the European Union, which should be the key issues for the next couple of years. We need a full understanding of in what areas we can count on the U.S. and on the European Union. What is the assistance for defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity?
What did the vice president say? How much will the U.S. support Ukraine?
We should demonstrate that we can solve our own problems. Then the United States can do its best to support reform, the economy, and security, and the fight against corruption. The key issue isn’t security—it is corruption. The terrorists are paid from a number of sources starting with the former president and his team. But we have a fresh opinion poll that shows that more than 80 percent of the population in the east and south support the government’s antiterrorist operation and do not like the idea of joining Russia. The main issues for these 80 percent of the people are the standard of life, unemployment, and corruption. Only for a very few is this a question of a separatist movement.
Do you believe President Putin will send troops into Ukraine?
I think an open war in the form of Russian ground troops crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border will not happen. This is dangerous for Russia because it would be a real war and people in Russia will not support that. But Russia [sending] special forces to destabilize the situation—paying some extremists and terrorists, supplying some weapons, bribing some policemen—that is possible.
And they will destabilize the east of Ukraine?
Absolutely. What is the purpose? Very simple. We have an election on the 25th of May. The only chance they have to demonstrate that Russia is a winner and Ukraine is a loser is by destabilizing the situation so we can’t hold the election. If they can say Ukraine doesn’t have a legitimate president, then they can question the legitimacy of our government.
What did you think came out of the recent Geneva meeting [among U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, and European diplomats]?
My expectation of Geneva is two things: de-escalation of the conflict by disarmament of the terrorists in the administrative buildings. If they give up their weapons, we are willing to guarantee them amnesty and security. If not, we shouldn’t have a dialogue with them. … The second result we expected from Geneva was for Russia to send observers to the elections. How can they say the election is not fair if they have no observers? The Russian strategy is to say this is just a Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Let us find a compromise. But this is not about a compromise. We are the object of aggression. It is a brutal violation of international law.
Wasn’t the Russian invasion of Crimea the first time since World War II that a part of a sovereign country in Europe has been invaded and kept by another country?
Absolutely. People should understand that this is not just a problem of Ukraine. This has broken the whole postwar global security situation. … We have the Budapest memorandum of 1994, which guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of my country when we voluntarily gave up the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. We received a security guarantee, but it is simply not working. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. can fulfill its obligation about our security.
What do you think Putin will do next?
I think he’s very emotional. He already has part of Georgia and part of Moldova—maybe part of Estonia. If nobody knows [what Putin will do next], how can we live in such an insecure world?
Has the U.S. let Ukraine down?
Yeah. I think we should create a new security treaty that will be adequate to the current conditions. I think Biden is ready to discuss this.
Do you think the sanctions are having any effect?
A very slight effect. Russia is very sensitive to sanctions, as it has an open economy, integrated to the global market. If we are so interdependent, we should find a compromise as to how we can keep the security. Without that, we cannot stop the aggression.
So far, the U.S. is giving Ukraine a loan guarantee for $1 billion.
The loan guarantee is just the first step. Then they will use their influence to get the [International Monetary Fund] to loan Ukraine $15 [billion] to $25 billion. Then it will be a several-billion-dollar loan from the World Bank. Then we have a joint program with the EU to provide microfinancial support up to 1.6 billion euros. We aren’t just talking about just financial support. We’re talking about the modernization of my country and zero tolerance for corruption. We cannot survive if we give corruption any chance. Corruption can only exist with an umbrella from the top. We need investors to say, “We trust these guys, and I can try some investments there.” Ukraine is a huge opportunity for investment—foreign, local, even Russian. The IMF money would be just a pillow to make the reforms not as painful for the poorest people. That would be absolutely transparent and people should trust the reforms. The main payment for the reforms should come from rich people, the oligarchs. Everybody will pay taxes. Rich people will pay more.
Will Rinat Akhmetov [the oligarch who rules the east] pay?
He will pay, I promise. I swear.
There has been a lot of coverage about leaflets distributed in the east demanding the registration of Jewish people. What did you think about these leaflets?
Ukraine was very tolerant to the Jews. We don’t have a nationalistic problem. They only problem we have is in Crimea. In Luhansk, they are beating and killing journalists and [attacking you] if you try to speak Ukrainian, if you try to wear a Ukrainian flag. That is not acceptable at all. This is why the government should be strong. This is why the presidential election is so important. After the presidential election, law and order will be there.
And you are going to win?
We have a chance now to win in the first round.
What percent do you need to win in the first round?
Fifty percent. Now I have 48 percent. Next to me is Yulia [Tymoshenko], and she has almost 14 percent.
You and she fought after the Orange Revolution. Some think that this fighting was responsible for the lack of results.
Now we should learn this lesson. The unity of the democratic forces should be a top priority.
You played an important part in the Maidan.
Yes. You know why we won? Because we were united. There was no difference between the rich and poor people. No difference between people from the west and from the east. There was no dispute between the leaders of the Maidan. We can win only when we are united. Otherwise, Viktor Yanukovych would still be here.
You were a part of the past.
On the 20th of February, we had a new country.
How did you decide to join the Maidan?
From the time I was elected to parliament, I was not voting for the government. I was sure it did not have a chance to survive. From the beginning, I was one of the organizers of the Maidan. My television channel—Channel 5—played a tremendously important role. We gave the opportunity to the journalists to tell the truth. … On the 11th of December, when we had [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State] Victoria Nuland and [EU diplomat] Catherine Ashton in Kiev, during the night they started to storm the Maidan. I put my car in front of the riot police. At that time, Channel 5 started to broadcast, there were just 2,000 people on the Maidan. But during the night, people went by foot—7, 8, 9, 10 kilometers—understanding this is a fight for Ukrainian freedom and democracy. In four hours, almost 30,000 people were there. This is a different county, a different people. We cannot betray their expectations.
So as president, you would still have a relationship with Russia?
Absolutely. Because without a direct dialogue with Russia, it will be impossible to create security.
Who will be on your team if you are elected?
It would be an absolutely new way of employing the people. More than 500 people graduated from Yale, Harvard, Oxford from Ukraine.
Are these people already working for you?
Some. Some would be employed immediately after the election. … It will be an open procedure of a headhunter, as in a corporate position. [I’m looking for] Western-style thinking, a completely new approach to the functioning of the state. We have a Soviet-style state bureaucratic machine.
Who will have the power? The prime minister or you?
We will be together. The country will have a balance of power, but power should be decentralized.
The Russians want to see Ukraine federalized.
Forget about that. No chance. That would be Crimea No. 2.
Would you give autonomy to the regions?
We would give financial autonomy—what language to speak, what monuments to build. That is what people need.
Would the governors be elected locally?
An elected local council would elect an executive committee [to appoint the governors]. Not appoint them in Kiev by the prime minister or the president as today. Only defense, military, security, and police would be controlled from the center.
If you are elected, when do you take office?
Immediately. I will do my best to try to unite the country. To invite people from the south and east to the government. This is exactly what people need—to participate in the government of their country.