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Associated Press
Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks during his press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25.

Ukraine’s new leader to talk to Russia and east

KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s new president-elect wasted no time Monday immediately focusing on the top issues at hand – promising to negotiate an end to a pro-Russia insurgency in the east and saying he was willing to begin talks with Moscow.

Russia quickly welcomed the offer from 48-year-old chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, raising hopes that his election will indeed ease the protracted crisis that has fueled tensions unseen since the end of the Cold War.

International observers, meanwhile hailed Ukraine’s presidential vote as a “genuine election,” saying it was held freely and fairly.

Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory in Sunday’s vote, he said his first step as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings, declared independence and battled government troops in weeks of fighting.

“Peace in the country and peace in the east is my main priority,” Poroshenko said Monday, signaling that he would bring to an end the Ukrainian army’s much-criticized campaign to drive out the armed pro-Russia separatists.

“The anti-terrorist operation cannot and should not last two or three months,” he said. “It should and will last hours.”

The military operation has caused civilian deaths and destroyed property – angering many eastern residents – while still failing to crush the rebellion.

The president-elect also had harsh words for the pro-Russia gunmen, comparing them to Somalia pirates.

“Their goal is to turn Donbass into a Somalia where they would rule with the power of machine guns. l will never allow that to happen on the territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said, adding that he hoped Russia would support his efforts to stabilize the east.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia appreciated Poroshenko’s statements about the importance of Ukraine’s ties with Russia and his pledge to negotiate an end to fighting in the east.

“We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kiev, with Petro Poroshenko,” Lavrov said at a briefing, adding it was a chance that “cannot be wasted.” He emphasized that Moscow saw no need for any involvement by the United States or the European Union in those talks.

“We don’t need any mediators,” he said pointedly.

Lavrov also noted Russia’s longstanding call for the Kiev government to end its military operation in eastern Ukraine.

The rebels had vowed to block Sunday’s voting in the east. Less than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.

But nationwide, about 60 percent of Ukraine’s 35.5 million eligible voters turned out Sunday, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the pro-Western capital, Kiev.

Joao Soares, special coordinator for the OSCE observer mission in Kiev, said the vote was held “largely in line with international commitments” and said Ukrainian authorities should be commended for their efforts to hold a vote in the unstable eastern regions. He said monitors did see multiple threats, intimidation and abduction of election officials in the east, which is overrun by pro-Russian militia.

With votes from 75 percent of the precincts counted Monday, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 percent. If those results hold, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month.

Speaking to reporters, Poroshenko struck a tone of unity Monday, saying he had no “rivals or political opponents in the race” and all of the other main candidates have congratulated him on his win.

“More than ever, Ukraine now needs to be united,” he said.

Mykhaylo Okhendovsky, chairman of the Central Election Commission, said official results would be announced by June 5.

The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office by crowds following months of street protests and allegations of corruption, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine’s protracted crisis.

Since his ouster in February, Russia has annexed the Crimea Peninsula in southern Ukraine, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to quash an uprising.

On Monday, pro-Russians blocked off the road to the airport in Donetsk, a major eastern city, causing delays to many flights.

The interim Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.

Unlike many other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations but instead built his chocolate empire from scratch. His Willy Wonka-like chocolate stores and candies are on sale in every kiosk across the country, helping lead to the perception that he is the “good tycoon.”

Many voters appreciate Poroshenko’s pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise.

President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting “despite provocations and violence.” Obama said the U.S. supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, rejects Russia’s “occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea” and is eager to work with the next president.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry in Moscow, and Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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