The not-very-nice things U.S. officials used to say about Ukraine’s new president


Ukrainian businessman Petro Poroshenko won the nation's presidential election Sunday. (Reuters/Stringer)

On Sunday, Ukraine voted in Petro Poro­shenko as its new president by a very convincing margin. Poroshenko, a "chocolate tycoon" with an estimated $1.3 billion fortune, is known as a soft spoken politician who had allied himself with protesters against ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. The hope is that he can lead Ukraine out of the chaos it has been suffering in recent months.

Poroshenko's win earned him congratulations from President Obama and from Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. But Poroshenko hasn't always been held in such high esteem by the international community, as Russian daily newspaper Kommersant reported Thursday. Back in 2006, U.S. officials were describing him as "disgraced" and "deeply unpopular."

Kommersant reporter Elena Chernenko dug through Wikileaks diplomatic cables to find mentions of Poroshenko. There are plenty of mentions of the 43-year-old, who was the head of the Council of Ukraine's National Bank and served as the nation's foreign minister: At least 350 reference can be found by searching the Wikileaks Web site, and many are not so positive.

In one cable from 2006, for example, Poroshenko is casually described as a "disgraced oligarch" by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst. Later that year, a cable from Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission in Kiev Sheila Gwaltney mentions that "Poroshenko was tainted by credible corruption allegations."

More cables continue this theme. Another 2006 cable finds Herbst recalling how he was told Poroshenko was a "discredited" figure who was a "net-minus" for his party, Our Russia. Later, the new head of the U.S. diplomatic mission, William Taylor, says Poroshenko is "a deeply unpopular politician" but has "widespread support among party leaders due to his past financial/organizational roles."

Kommersant notes that the criticism appears to stop in 2009, when Poroshenko became Ukraine's foreign minister.

The bulk of the criticism appears to be related to Poroshenko's feud with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who accused him of corruption in 2005 over the privatization of state-owned firms. But both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko were then fired by President Viktor Yushchenko, and the Chocolate tycoon may have had the last laugh with this recent election: Poroshenko beat out Tymoshenko by 55 percent to 12.9 percent.

Whether those corruption scandals were true is hard to say. Ukrainian analyst Ivan Lozowy told the New York Times that no real evidence had ever come out, although he said he was sure that Poroshenko had "bought his way in," as "that’s the way it works in Ukraine." CHESNO, a civil movement that investigated the leading presidential candidates for signs of corruption, told Deutche Welle that Poroshenko seemed to have stayed within the law while amassing his fortune.

Of course, these are hardly the worst insults that have been uncovered in the WikiLeaks cables: Remember how French President Nicolas Sarkozy was described as "an emperor with no clothes" and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi was "feckless, vain, and ineffective"?

Even so, the cables do show that while Poroshenko has been able to portray himself as a centrist willing to bridge Ukraine's many divides, he's also very much part of the pre-Maidan political elite, and he faces a lot of the criticisms that came with that. Perhaps it's no wonder that now, even after the election, Kiev's Maidan protesters aren't sure if they should head home.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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