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Ohio senator calls Ukraine elections legitimate

Saying Ukraine’s election provides a chance “for the country to have a fresh start,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said today the apparent election of Petro Poroshenko as president helps “put in place a legitimate democratic government” to reform the country’s collapsing economy.

Portman, R-Ohio, who visited six polling places in the Kiev area Sunday during the election, said it was a “very inspiring experience because the Ukrainian people were determined to vote,” adding that they “came to the polls in big numbers” and “wanted to make sure they could chart their own future.”

In a conference call with Ohio reporters, Portman said it would be critical for the United States and its European allies to “remain firm” to give a chance for the new government to spark the economy and discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from interfering with eastern Ukraine.

“Poroshenko has some big challenges ahead,’’ said Portman, who spoke by telephone from Poland where he visited U.S. troops and Polish government officials today. Mon

Portman acknowledged that “there were real problems” voting in two areas of eastern Ukraine “because of violence” sparked by pro-separatists backed by Russia. But he insisted that at least 90 percent of Ukraine had a chance to vote and it was “a legitimate election and ought to be treated as such.”

Twenty-one candidates competed Sunday to become Ukraine’s next leader. With votes from 80 percent of the precincts counted Monday, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent of the vote, according to the Associated Press.

Portman, mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, adopted a much tougher stance on Ukraine than President Barack Obama, declaring that Ukrainian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be “a goal,” although he conceded that Ukraine is “probably not ready yet to meet the criteria that NATO has for membership.”

He also called on Russia to return Crimea, a province on the Black Sea annexed last March by Putin. And he spoke of a bill he is sponsoring to send anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, a move the Obama administration has so far rejected.

Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman who made a fortune estimated at $1.3 billion by selling chocolate and candy, has said he wants to join the European Union and appears open to market reforms demanded by the West in return for financial aid.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev for Russia in February after he rejected a trade deal with the European Union. Portman said he left the “left the country as an economic basket case.”

“People who are eager to see a change and believe as I talked to them that Poroshenko would be a good manager of the economy and also would stand up to Russia,” Portman said.

Portman, who joined Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., on the trip, said they had a chance to meet with Poroshenko the night before the election. But they chose not to because they believed “it was important that the United States contingent not take sides in the election.”

Instead, they met with Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a pro-Western politician who assumed the post earlier this year after Yanukovych’s fall.

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