Ukraine’s Chocolate King to the Rescue

Ukrainians hope that Petro Poroshenko can lead them out of the current crisis. But can one man provide the solution to all the country's problems?


Petro Poroshenko has a dream. As the 48-year-old Ukrainian business tycoon told journalists earlier this week, he hopes one day to represent his country in the European Parliament — which was an odd thing to say since Ukraine is not a member of the European Union and has little chance of joining anytime soon. You’d think that Poroshenko would have his mind on a more immediate task: winning election to the presidency in the election scheduled for this coming Sunday, May 25.

Of course, there’s a deeper logic to Poroshenko’s European aspiration: It echoes the longing for a European future that played a part in the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. The Euromaidan protests, which were actively and visibly supported by Poroshenko, also vaulted him into the ranks of Ukraine’s most popular politicians — and now to the leading position in this weekend’s presidential race. In the run-up to the balloting, eastern Ukraine has been wracked by the worst violence since the political crisis there first erupted earlier this year. On Thursday, at least 13 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by pro-Russian insurgents at a checkpoint 20 miles south of the restive city of Donetsk. The rebel group behind the attack said one of its militants was also killed.

Still, if the vote goes off without a hitch, Poroshenko is so far ahead of his rivals in opinion polls that he could even win in the first round. Last week, a poll put support for him at 54.7 percent among likely voters — embarrassingly far ahead of opposition bigwig and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was in second place with 9.6 percent.

To be sure, Poroshenko is no ordinary politician (even in a country that abounds in outsized political personalities). He made his fortune, now estimated by Forbes at $1.3 billion, in the chocolate business — an unlikely achievement that has led some to dub him “Ukraine’s Willy Wonka.” That hint of magic befits a man whose followers believe that only he can rescue the country from its current predicament. After he announced his decision to run for president a few weeks ago, a crowd of supporters began to chant his name. “I won’t let you down,” he told them.

Easier said than done. Winning the presidency is one thing; leading Ukraine out of its crisis is another. Though the Ukrainian media have been speculating about his running for president for months, Poroshenko’s strong lead in the polls does come as something of a surprise. When the protests against Yanukovych began in Kiev’s central square last year, Poroshenko probably wouldn’t have been considered an obvious candidate for future national leadership. Yet his early decision to side with the protesters raised his profile. At the same time, he remained aloof from the three main opposition leaders, all of whom were regarded with various degrees of skepticism by the Euromaidan demonstrators. Poroshenko said the right things but also knew when to stay out of the way.

This ultimately worked to his advantage. The three opposition leaders were left discredited for signing a deal with Yanukovych on Feb. 21, the night before the embattled president fled Kiev, eventually showing up in Russia. (Poroshenko was not among the signatories.) In March, boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko, who had been the favorite candidate throughout the protests, announced his withdrawal from the race — and threw his support to the more popular Poroshenko, whose ratings then shot up even further. Poroshenko has since widened his lead over Tymoshenko, who was released from jail the day that Yanukovych fled.

The dramatic developments since then — first in Crimea and now in Ukraine’s east — have distracted attention from government business in Kiev and pre-election political scheming. Of course, Ukrainians have long been wondering whether the election will actually take place, and now separatist leaders in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk have said they will boycott the vote.

Poroshenko’s election slogan, promising no less than “a new way of life,” aims to capitalize on the widespread yearning for dramatic reform in the wake of the struggle against Yanukovych. “A new country was born and a new people was born,” he told Reuters in a recent interview. Referring to the casualties incurred during the protest, he added that Ukraine’s future leaders “should know why 104 people gave their lives.” It’s a line that echoes the mood of dissatisfaction among people who backed the protests, who wonder why more than 100 protesters died for the sake of change that is yet to come.

But can Poroshenko deliver? Ukraine is not the same country it was during the Orange Revolution of 2004: Society has evolved dramatically, even if Tymoshenko’s famed hairstyle has remained the same. Yet there is also something distinctly anachronistic about Poroshenko, whose political career dates back to 1998. Despite his reformist ambitions, one risk of a Poroshenko presidency is that Ukraine could end up with business as usual — at just the moment when the country urgently needs decisive leadership and wide-reaching reform. Some Ukrainian commentators have wondered whether the current demand for fresh leaders will be enough to make people forget Poroshenko’s dubious political moves in the past.

Despite his recent support for Yanukovych’s opponents, Poroshenko actually has a long history with the former president’s political machine, the Party of Regions. In 2000, the “Chocolate King,” as Poroshenko is also known, was one of the founders of a party that ultimately evolved into the current Party of Regions. Later, though, he crossed over to the government as a protégé of President Viktor Yushchenko (the victor of the Orange Revolution and a man who also promised wide-ranging democratic reforms). Poroshenko eventually served as Yushchenko’s foreign minister from  2009 to 2010. After the Orange camp disintegrated, torn apart by internal conflicts, Poroshenko was back with his former colleagues from the Party of Regions, with Yanukovych — who was president by then — giving him a ministerial portfolio. At the time, one Ukrainian weekly compared Poroshenko’s shift back to his old colleagues to the return of a prodigal son.

Poroshenko is now vowing to transform Ukrainian politics. Rivalries have plagued the pro-democratic forces for years, stalling reforms and playing into the hands of Yanukovych and, indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In this sense, Poroshenko has presented his alliance with Klitschko as a new style of politics, not just a way to win the election. “From the times of King Yaroslav, from the times of King Volodymyr, there was a harsh contest for power that divided the country,” he said when announcing their cooperation in April. “We have decided to put an end to this tradition.” To drive home the point, he noted the “historic” nature of his alliance with Klitschko, which runs against the recent grain of Ukraine’s notoriously fractious political environment — at least for now.

All this sounds promising enough — except that Poroshenko’s own track record here is not great. His rivalry with Tymoshenko split the pro-democratic “Orange” camp following the Orange Revolution, when they vied for the position of prime minister. (Yushchenko has since said that he made a mistake appointing Tymoshenko to the prime ministership and that Poroshenko was the better prepared of the two.) Now the two political veterans are confronting each other in the current presidential race. Poroshenko has tried to persuade her not to run, so far unsuccessfully. He has also called for the weaker candidates — those with less than 3 or 5 percent — to withdraw from the race and back him so that he can win in the first round.

But will Tymoshenko play along? She originally declared that she would stay out of the way if Poroshenko wins. Now she seems to have changed her mind, pledging to start a new revolution if she loses the election. (Her critics periodically remind her that the Maidan demonstrators didn’t take to the streets to free her from prison, much less to facilitate her return to politics.) “I know all those people,” she has said dismissively of Poroshenko and his team, implying that they have murky biographies. As the polls show, however, Ukrainians seem more convinced by Poroshenko.

Poroshenko has also vowed that one of his first moves will be to dismantle Ukraine’s oligarchic system. He has pledged to get rid of the “uncompetitive, corrupt benefits” the old authorities created for “families” of businessmen and has promised “zero tolerance for corruption.” This is also a message to voters. In one recent poll, 51 percent of respondents put “untainted by corruption” at the top of the list of criteria they’d like to see in the country’s future president.

Needless to say, this is just what Ukraine needs — but these are strange words, coming from someone who made his career, and his fortune, in just the environment he now condemns. Eight years ago, when Poroshenko took a senior political position in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, analyst Andreas Umland considered the ironies entailed by replacing old oligarchs with new ones. Fast-forward to 2014, and another revolution in Kiev, and that assessment remains current.

The wealth of Ukraine’s seventh-richest man (and richest lawmaker) is not so much a problem in itself — though it does jar with the widely circulated images of the opulent mansions of Yanukovych and his cronies. Yet Poroshenko’s fans don’t seem to mind too much. I asked a doctor smoking a cigarette on the edge of Kiev’s Independence Square if Poroshenko’s wealth bothered her. (She had just finished singing his praises.) “The family made its money with their chocolate factories, you know,” she shrugged, as if she were talking about the local corner shop.

Poroshenko’s assets are not limited to the confectionary business; they also include a stake in the media. Several observers have suggested that his popularity has been boosted by his ownership of Channel 5, a popular TV station that backed the protests. “Poroshenko can’t say that he is any different from Firtash or Akhmetov, for whom the media is an instrument in the political struggle,” wrote journalist Sergii Leshchenko in a recent column. Poroshenko has said that he will sell Roshen, his chocolate brand, if he becomes president, but has no intention of selling Channel 5 (to some observers’ dismay). Why? “Because this channel two times saved the country, and, reason number two, because the channel is not for sale,” he has said.

And even if Poroshenko is serious about taking on the oligarchs, the reality is that this is a moment when the new leadership in Kiev may need their support more than ever. The new government may yet seek to harness the clout of oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and formerly Yanukovych’s closest ally, who last week deployed workers from his steel plant to restore order in the southeastern city of Mariupol and other East Ukrainian cities, pushing the pro-Russian militants there into the background.

If anything, a President Poroshenko could use his mandate to push for closer economic relations between Ukraine and the European Union. He already has a reputation as a victim of Moscow’s economic bullying: Russia banned his confectionary brand Roshen last summer and took over one of its factories in Russia. In March, Ukraine finally signed the political section of the EU association agreement that Yanukovych dropped in November 2013, sparking the protests in Kiev. The economic section of the agreement is yet to be signed, but Štefan Füle, the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, has said that it could be signed after the Ukrainian election. That would put the ball in Poroshenko’s court, testing both his commitment to European integration and his capacity for working with Russia.

But talks with Brussels are just one of the challenges confronting Ukraine’s next president. He still faces a restive Maidan: not just the people who remain physically on Independence Square, but the broader public opinion nurtured by the protests, which mistrusts politicians. Poroshenko is not wholly immune to this either: A video released last month, viewed more than 125,000 times on YouTube, contrasts his icy response to journalists’ questions with his earlier promises on the Maidan.

Then there is the unrest in the east, which leaders in Kiev — including Poroshenko — have struggled to counter. This weekend, Poroshenko announced that one of his first moves if elected will be to establish a Ministry for Crimean Affairs, adding that its mission will include “coordinating actions after Crimea’s return.” This is what many in Ukraine want to
hear. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Poroshenko has the means to make it happen.

Polls suggest that Poroshenko has his share of supporters even in the East. 29 percent of likely voters in the East say that they’ll be voting for him, and 43 percent in the South — miles ahead of the candidates with traditional links to those areas, including those from the Party of Regions. (In central and western Ukraine, by comparison, those favoring him number 60 and 67 percent respectively.)

This level of support adds to the hope that Poroshenko can provide a rallying point for the millions of Ukrainians — from Lviv in the West to Dnipropetrovsk in the East and possibly beyond — who want to maintain the country’s unity. But even so, it will take more than the “golden ticket” of a Poroshenko victory — whether this weekend or in a second round in June — to sort out the country’s problems.

Annabelle Chapman is a journalist who covers Poland and Ukraine. Follow her on Twitter: @AB_Chapman.