News Analysis: Ukrainian president's political legacy mixed after two years in office

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is preparing to mark his second anniversary in office on June 7 amid controversies surrounding his political legacy.

Many local analysts agree that the president's two first years in power have been generally successful as he has started a process of much-needed reforms, signed a long-delayed association agreement with the European Union (EU) and strengthened the army.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko is facing harsh criticism over his inability to fulfill the major election pledges, that are, to stabilize the economy, root out corruption and end the conflict in the country's east.

KEY PROMISES NOT FULFILLED YET

Poroshenko came to power in tough times for Ukraine, when the country was recovering from the aftermath of street protests that toppled the previous authority.

During his election campaign, Poroshenko made many promises, vowing to end the violence in the east "within hours," unify the deeply fractured nation, improve ordinary people's lives, boost ties with the EU and ease tensions with Russia.

Two years on, the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues, corruption is rampant, and the country, whose foreign policy is far from balanced, is facing enormous economic challenges.

"Poroshenko has not implemented any of the key political promises -- peace, economic growth, reforms and visa-free status with the EU," said Ruslan Bortnik, a political analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for Analysis and Management of Policy.

Bortnik's comment reflects the widespread view that the situation in Ukraine has become increasingly complicated over the past two years. The confrontation in eastern regions has killed more than 9,300 people, with 1.7 million being internally displaced.

The economy of the conflict-hit country is also in tatters -- it bogged down 9.9 percent last year, after contracting 6.8 percent in 2014.

Therefore, the well-being of most ordinary Ukrainians has dramatically decreased. The situation is aggravated by widespread job cuts, an increase in utility tariffs, three-fold devaluation of the local currency and a high inflation rate.

"In 2014, the inflation was 25 percent, while last year it exceeded 43 percent. Over the past two years, the real incomes of Ukrainians have fallen by half," said Ivan Nikitchenko, a financial analyst at the Prostobank consulting group.

POSITIVE CHANGES OBSERVABLE

Despite the widespread criticism, there are also those who believe that Poroshenko did everything in his power to stabilize the situation in crisis-hit Ukraine.

After all, judging the president by the overall strength of the economy is not completely fair and correct in the first place, since Poroshenko inherited a country which was already facing financial turbulence.

"The direct areas of responsibility of the president are foreign policy and defense. And exactly in these two areas Ukraine has achieved the best results," said Olexiy Haran, a professor at Kiev Mohyla Academy.

It is debatable whether there was a way to completely end the conflict in the east, but Poroshenko's efforts to stop the escalation of fighting, in particular by signing the Minsk agreement, which became a turning point in settling the confrontation, drew praise from many analysts.

Strengthening the Ukrainian army is widely regarded here as another major achievement of Poroshenko.

"The main merit of the president as a supreme commander-in-chief is the creation of an efficient army, which was in a deplorable state before. It allowed us to prevent a major conflict," said Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute for Global Strategies.

In the international arena, Ukraine has also made some progress over Poroshenko's two years in charge. In particular, the country has resumed cooperation with the International Monetary Fund and signed the long-awaited Association Agreement with the EU, which paved the way for free trade.

There have also been advances in domestic policy. Local analysts listed the successful implementation of the police reform, the start of a decentralization process and reduction of dependence on imported energy as Poroshenko's most significant internal policy gains.

APPROVAL RATING SLIPPING

While experts remain divided in their assessments of the first two years of Poroshenko's presidency, ordinary people are apparently focusing on his faults rather than his achievements.

This is clearly illustrated by the fact that Poroshenko's approval rating has slipped four-fold in the past two years.

While in 2014, when Poroshenko came to power, his support was an unprecedented 54.7 percent, now, only 13.5 percent of Ukrainians are ready to vote for him if presidential elections are held, showed a recent survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

The main reason for the falling support is that Poroshenko's sympathizers hoped that the self-made tycoon, known for his pragmatism and propensity for compromises, would find a way to quickly settle the crisis in the country, but he failed to meet their expectations.

Dissatisfaction with the president is also fueled by the alleged offshore tax scandal and a growing consolidation of the president's power as Poroshenko's close allies were appointed to key posts in the country -- the prime minister, the governor of the central bank and the prosecutor general.

"Now, we observe a gradual monopolization of power in the hands of the president as the key government bodies and agencies, in fact, are ruled by one person. This is a very dangerous precedent," said Ruslan Kermach, an analyst at the Democratic Initiatives Fund.

As public opinion is turning against Poroshenko, his prospects for a second term in office appear uncertain.

The key challenges on this way remain the same -- resolving the conflict in the east, boosting the economy and implementing structural reforms.

It is not clear how the president intends to address these problems during the next three years of his term, but there is no doubt that he should find new political means to handle them as the old ones have proved to be ineffective.

Besides, analysts believe that Poroshenko should refrain from making big promises that are difficult to realize to save his political reputation and boost his approval rating.

"The third year of Poroshenko's presidency will be crucial not only for himself, but for the country as a whole. If he implements all the plans that have been announced, he would really regain trust. Otherwise, it would be difficult for him to obtain a second term in office," said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies.

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