KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has launched his campaign for re-election in March's vote, which promises to be a bitter contest between him and a former prime minister.
Addressing supporters Tuesday in the capital of Kiev, Poroshenko said he hoped that Ukraine will push on with efforts to join both the European Union and NATO if he were to win another five-year term.
"We have to safeguard (Ukraine's) integration with the European Union and NATO," he said. "We must not stop half-way there."
The country's prime minister, speaker of the parliament and the chief prosecutor all attended the gathering to back Poroshenko's bid.
Poroshenko's main rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, entered the race last week, promising to regain control of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula and the separatist-held areas in the east. She accused Poroshenko and his associates of profiting from the ongoing separatist conflict there between the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed rebels.
Opinion polls have shown Poroshenko trailing Tymoshenko, who served as prime minister from 2007-2010. Some have even put comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played the nation's president in a popular TV series, in dead heat with Poroshenko in the March 31 presidential vote.
Tymoshenko fired another broadside at the president on Tuesday, slamming him for turning a blind eye to official corruption.
"Corruption has engulfed the entire country, and it hinges upon incumbent President Poroshenko," she said. "He will bear responsibility for destroying the country for five years."
Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Center think-tank noted that in a bid to secure re-election the president has argued that his defeat will play into Russia's hand.
"Poroshenko has also emphasized the threat of populism in Ukraine, nodding at some of his rivals," he said.
Long before Tuesday's announcement, Poroshenko had sought to bolster his sagging public support by spearheading efforts to secure the independence of the Ukrainian church from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Earlier this month, the president toured Ukraine with the Tomos, a scroll containing the decree of the Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarch granting independence to the new Ukrainian Orthodox church. Billboards with Poroshenko holding the scroll line the main highway linking Kiev's airport and the city center.
"Tomos is a huge victory for us," Poroshenko told a forum of supporters. "It's another act of independence for Ukraine. Every Ukrainian must cherish that."
Andriy Yermolayev, head of Kiev-based New Ukraine strategic research institute, said Poroshenko was building his campaign on the recognition of the church's independence amid economic problems.
"Economic troubles and the failure to combat corruption leave Poroshenko little place for maneuver," he said. "Army, language, faith and anti-Russian rhetoric can help improve the president's ratings."