Man in a hurry, Ukraine's new leader flashes steel behind smile

by Reuters
Monday, 26 May 2014 17:42 GMT

* President-elect Poroshenko mixes charm and muscle

* Airport attack, scorn for "terrorists" reveal policy

* Billionaire "Chocolate King" a veteran political operator

* Crisis with Russia, rebels offers no easy solutions

By Alastair Macdonald

KIEV, May 26 (Reuters) - Petro Poroshenko does a fair impression of a man with all the time in the world, bantering with reporters in a fluent medley of languages on his first morning as Ukraine's president-elect.

But the chunky, billionaire-issue wristwatch flashing from his well-tailored cuff marks out a man in a hurry; his smooth patter on creating wealth, fighting corruption and embracing European values cracked when pressed on how he can recover Crimea from Russia or defeat pro-Moscow rebels in the east.

And however much those bursts of emotion may have been aimed at the cameras during an expansive 90 minutes before the world's media, he showed he was ready to vent his anger in steel, not just words: within the hour, Ukrainian warplanes were strafing and bombing the rebel-held international airport in Donetsk.

"The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months - it should last for a matter of hours," he said, promising more punch - and more resources - for a so far unconvincing military drive to end the separatist revolt.

"The Ukrainian soldier should no longer go naked, barefoot and hungry," the confectionery magnate added, tuning in to a populist touch honed on the barricades of last winter's street protests that brought down his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich.

Denouncing rebel leaders as no better than Somali pirates, set on preserving their "bandit state" at the expense of people in the Russian-speaking east to whom they denied a vote on Sunday, he ruled out negotiations with "terrorists".

But he offered guarantees on language rights and autonomy for what he described as a silenced majority who wanted to stay in Ukraine and forecast talks within three weeks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying "we know each other very well".

Playing a weak hand against a powerful neighbour, Poroshenko laid out his strongest cards: Moscow's complaint that the new Kiev authorities lacked legitimacy had "disappeared" with his victory on Sunday across the country. He crushed the field even in the east - previous presidential elections have polarised the country between east and west, Russian and Ukrainian speakers.

He listed with a businessman's eye the financial pain being inflicted on Russia, and the world economy, by U.S. and EU sanctions - pain that Putin could make go away by compromising.

And he pledged to end dependence on Russian gas that had not just let Moscow thwart Ukrainians' hopes of closer ties to the West but corrupted Kiev's leaders, "including the president and prime ministers" - a dig at not only Yanukovich but, seemingly, his old rival and Sunday's distant runner-up Yulia Tymoshenko, a former premier who earned the soubriquet the "Gas Princess".


The 48-year-old "Chocolate King", who announced plans to sell the business empire he has built up since the 1990s to focus on his new job, is no stranger to command and to the inner workings of the Ukrainian state after a string of positions.

After a slick campaign, he showed himself an accomplished performer on television, in marked contrast to his predecessor.

Where Yanukovich brought a politburo stiffness to the role, uncomfortable straying into unscripted spontaneity, Poroshenko took questions from all comers, switching seamlessly in answers between Ukrainian, Russian and fluent English.

Taking on a job few would envy, the tanned, heavy face beneath the sleek coiffure betrayed no sign of doubt or fatigue.

The crisp, white, button-down open collar under the light grey suit spoke of money and grooming. The Churchillian asides about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the others were those of a man at ease in the public eye.

When he fumbled the handkerchief he had pulled out to mop sweat brought on by the TV lights, triggering a barrage of shutter clicks from photographers looking for a glimpse behind the mask, he flashed them back a broad "you got me" smile.

When a foreign reporter somewhat mangled a question in Russian and asked the new president if he had "already had relations with" a neighbouring head of state, Poroshenko just raised an eyebrow and milked a laugh out of the double entendre.

Solving Ukraine's increasingly violent crisis - the fruit of 23 years of post-Soviet drift and corruption fermented in an embryonic new Cold War - will take more than the snappy marketing that has made his "Roshen" chocolate a market leader.

But between the forceful strike in Donetsk and a display of personal confidence and acute grasp of the issues, Poroshenko has made a start on convincing friends, and foes, he means business. He summed up the challenge himself, in English.

"New state. New people," he pledged. "Promise." (Editing by Richard Balmforth and Will Waterman)

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