Ukraine Election: The Chocolate King Rises
Part 2: 'Piss Off, You Jewish Garbage!'
The story of the Maidan and Poroshenko is an unsual one. The billionaire appeared at the protests for the first time on December 1, 2013, before there were any barricades on Independence Square. On that day, young people had gathered on the steps of the presidential palace, and, because the president had just attempted to dissolve the protests using force, were shouting out in anger about Yanukovych.
Poroshenko wanted to negotiate. He stood in front of the Bankow Street presidential administration with his son Olexiy, when either members of the extreme right or provocateurs steered by Russia yelled "piss off, you Jewish garbage!" Among the extreme right, it is taken for granted that Poroshenko is Jewish and is actually named Walzman - though there is no proof of the name change. Father and son have a hard time making it to their car.
After that, Poroshenko is only rarely seen on Independence Square. He donates money to the uprising - "for firewood and fire pots, so the people in the tents can warm themselves." And he lets Channel 5, his TV station, broadcast live from the square. But he doesn't stand get on stage - and, as a result, manages to escape the fates of opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok, who signed a kind of peace treaty with Yenukovytch on February 21, an act which the rebels have yet to forgive them for.
"On one hand, Poroshenko belongs to the Maidan, on the other hand, he has never been brought into direct contact with its leaders. He never engaged in negotiations with the discredited politicians," says political theorist Vadim Karasev. It worked to his advantage Poroshenko is also a successful businessman -- an oligarch who made his fortune with something more down-to-earth, a successful chocolate conglomerate instead of gas pipelines or mines. It also helped that people wanted to see new faces.
Poroshenko Makes His Move
Poroshenko sensed the shift in opinion and how Klitschko, who wanted to run for president, was losing the favor of the Maidan. He seized his opportunity. By the end of March he was able to bring Klitschko to his side, and the former heavyweight boxing champion told his voters to support Poroshenko.
"Right up to the last minute, we didn't know anything about this deal," says one member of Klitschko's Udar party.
It quickly emerged that the deal had been arranged by Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin. One is a gas oligarch with close links to Russia -- he is wanted by the United States for suspected bribery and currently resides in Vienna. The other most recently served as chief of staff to former President Yanukovych.
In a kind of alliance that is typical of Ukraine, it appears that the aim of Poroshenko's candidacy is to prevent a comeback by Yulia Tymoshenko, who has promised to wage "war against all Ukrainian oligarchs" if elected.
Poroshenko's biggest handicap is the fact that people also consider him to be an oligarch. "But I'm not one," he recently declared on Kiev's most popular talk show. "Oligarchs are people who seek power in order to further enrich themselves. But I have long fought against bandits who are robbing our country and have destroyed free enterprise." Poroshenko claims he will sell all of his businesses if he is elected president.
A Man Who Could Speak to Russia?
In the past few weeks, the man Forbes magazine has called the "Willy Wonka of Ukraine," who lives in a palatial estate outside of Kiev, counts French impressionist Claude Monet as his favorite artist and drives a Bentley, has actually done a lot to get closer to the Ukrainian people. He has traveled the country, even making a visit to Simferopol in Crimea before its annexation by Russia, a place that acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk hasn't dared travelling to.
"We have to find a compromise," Poroshenko told a crowd gathered in front of the Crimean parliament, but his appeal was drowned by shouts of "Russia, Russia."
He also visited Odessa immediately after the devastating fire at the city's House of Unions that killed 38 people on May 2. He left red carnations to remember the dead, went to a local hospital to visit the injured, made the sign of the cross and spoke of a "tragedy" and a "provocation," suggesting that Russia's secret service had played some kind of role in the event.
Poroshenko has become more cautious is his political announcements. He now says that Ukraine could possibly become an EU member state by 2025 and he has put aside entirely the possibility of NATO membership. He also rejects a federalization of Ukraine and says he wants to strengthen the Ukrainian economy to the point that the people of Crimea would want to return their region to the country. He also believes it would be possible to reach a compromise with Moscow.
There's much to suggest the chocolate magnate might be the kind of person capable of developing positive relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Poroshenko is acquainted with Moscow's top politicians, he's a friend of the Russian ambassador to Ukraine and, as an Orthodox Christian, he often makes pilgrimages to Russian monasteries.
But there's a hitch: Russia's economic war against Ukraine began last summer with a boycott against Roshen pralines. It appears Moscow's goal was to pressure Poroshenko, whose stances are pro-EU, to shift his positions. His factory in Lipetsk has since suspended operations and two of his bank accounts in Moscow, with an estimated 53 million in deposits, have been seized.
A 30-minute film called "The Chocolate Bunny" was recently aired in Russia by the government-aligned television station NTW. It included even the wildest of rumors about Poroshenko, including claims that he financed the sharpshooters responsible for the deaths of almost 100 people on Maidan Square. The TV report also claimed that Poroshenko built his chocolate empire through the criminal acquisition of former Soviet companies and that his pralines contain the carcinogenic organic compound benzopyrene. The show also argued that Poroshenko's Jewish father had been murdered and that the candidate had bought out Klitschko in order to eliminate a potential competitor, was responsible for radicalizing the Maidan and was tapping the help of right-wing nationalists in order to make the leap to the country's highest elected office.
And now, in the final days leading up to the election, Yulia Tymoshenko has been accusing him of being a part of Russia's fifth column and alleging that he obtained $130 million-worth of orders from Putin for his shipyard in Sevastopol.
Although Poroshenko dismisses the claim as a "lie," he has suggested he may offer Tymoshenko the post of prime minister if he is elected. Tymoshenko, for her part, say she doesn't want to have anything to do with him. She says that if the people vote for Poroshenko, it will trigger a "third wave of revolution" in the country -- a revolution against the oligarchs.
At least that's what she would like to see happen. Once again, it is clear that the greatest threat to Ukraine isn't just to be found in cities like Donetsk -- but also in Kiev.
- Part 1: The Chocolate King Rises
- Part 2: 'Piss Off, You Jewish Garbage!'
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