It would have seemed ludicrous just six months ago, but candy magnate Petro Poroshenko has now become the leading candidate in the Ukrainian election. The question remains: Is he an opportunist or a visionary?
Those wanting to understand Petro Poroshenko should visit Vinnytsia, a provincial capital 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Kiev, on the Southern Bug River, with 370,000 inhabitants and a medical university.
For a long time, it had only two tourist attractions. The first is the former estate of Nikolai Pirogov -- the doctor who founded field surgery in Russia and died in 1881, but lies embalmed here, like Lenin, in his family tomb on the edge of the city. The other is the "Werwolf" headquarters that Hitler had built here in 1942, located in a forest eight kilometers north of Vinnytsia.
As of about three years ago, Vinnytsia has a third attraction: the biggest dancing waters show in Europe. Its fountains, which are installed in the river, shoot water 70 meters (229 feet) into the air, accompanied by a music-and-laser show. Tourists from all over Ukraine come here to see what is considered one of the 10 most impressive water shows in the world.
At least that's what they say in Vinnytsia's two candy factories, both of which belong to the Roshen conglomerate. Roshen is the biggest chocolate manufacturer in Ukraine, and its owner is one of the richest people in the country. He gave the fountains to the city as a gift and, this Sunday, he could very well be elected president of Ukraine. His name: Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko represents Vinnytsia in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. That's why he came here -- to explain why he is the best suited to lead his country as it sinks into civil war.
In Vinnytsia, there are no traces of the fighting. It's a calm, modern city. The buses run around the clock, there is Internet in the streetcars and you can call a hotline to complain to the mayor if something isn't working. Vinnytsia is the counterpoint to the working-class Luhansk on the Russian border.
'Live in a New Way'
On this particular day, several thousand people are waiting for Poroshenko, the man whom Ukrainians call the "chocolate king." The crowd will be easy to convince -- not only because 5,000 locals have found work in his factories, but because he pays higher wages than they are used to here. He also recently opened another factory in Vinnytsia that manufactures canned milk.
The people on the square are holding balloons with the colors of Ukraine, and flags with the slogan "Live in a new way -- Poroshenko!" His 28-year-old son Olexiy, a representative in the regional parliament, is standing next to the stage.
His father arrives 20 minutes too late. Petro Poroshenko is 48 years old, wearing a blue suit with striped tie. He makes up for his lateness with a passionate speech.
"We will never again allow someone to drag Ukraine back into the past," he shouts to the audience. "We will found a new army capable of protecting the sovereignty of our country. And we can never again experience a disgrace like the annexation of Crimea!"
"Poroshenko, Poroshenko," the audience chants.
The candidate promises everything people want to hear: A police "that defends the rights of every citizen"; peace, so that businesspeople come back to the country; support for the middle class, which, as he points out, makes up most of the population of Ukraine; prospects of advancement for the young. "What we've managed in Vinnytsia, we'll do in the entire country. We will become proud to live in Ukraine!"
The Surprise Candidate
Right now, nobody is proud of Ukraine. And even Poroshenko doesn't explain how he will make all the wonders that he has promised in a country that is virtually bankrupt come true. But he is more inspiring than those currently in power in Kiev, and you can feel the restlessness in him, the impulsiveness. He "isn't a wimp," says one person who knows him well. Other people describe the man who wants to save Ukraine as explosive, hysterical, vengeful, and sometimes strange and crazy.
People have been arguing for weeks whether it makes sense to have a presidential election in the middle of a national crisis in Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist regions in the east, are going to boycott them, and it's still unclear whether Russia will recognize the results. The West is warning Moscow that if it subverts the elections on May 25, it will face more sanctions. But, at the same time, Ukraine finally needs a proper head of state.
Could that be Petro Poroshenko -- a man who not even the boldest bookmakers would have foreseen as a presidential candidate just a half-year ago? How could a billionaire who owns not just a chocolate company, but automotive plants, a shipyard in Crimea and a TV channel, be an independent politician -- a man who has no significant support in parliament and of whom nobody knows his political goals?
Despite this, his polling numbers have shot up over the past few weeks. 84 percent of Ukrainians want to take part in the election, and 40.5 percent of them apparently want to vote for Petro Poroshenko. Is he, the great unknown, the profiteer of the crisis in his own country?
Winding Journey to Wealth
Poroshenko comes from a small town southwest of Odessa, near the border to Moldova. His Father Olexij worked as an agricultural engineer during Soviet times, and later as a general manager of the Ukrprominvest entrepreneurs association. In the archives there are suggestions that the father spent two years in jail for stealing state property.
Petro was already a rake when he was in school -- despite good grades he wasn't awarded the normal gold medal at graduation, and on his report card he was given a "C" for his behavior. He played sports, especially judo, and after getting into a fight with four cadets at the military commissariat, he was sent to army service in distant Kazakhstan.
After his military service, Poroshenko studied international relations and international law in Kiev. In the student residence, he met Marina, the woman who would later become his wife. Marina, who is now a doctor, says "it was love like a firework." After the first son, Olexiy, born in 1985, she gave birth to twins, Yevheniya and Oleksandra, in 2000 and, one year later, to another son, Mykhaylo.
As Petro Poroshenko finished his studies, the Soviet Union fell apart, and like thousands of other academics, he became a small businessman. Poroshenko had talent, and launched a career in the cocoa bean trade.
In the '1990s, he became the leader of two trade associations and began buying chocolate factories -- in Vinnytsia, in the Russian city of Lipezk, the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda and in Budapest.
Poroshenko assembled the companies into the Roshen Group, named after the middle part of his own last name, and ran his plants effectively, producing high-quality chocolate. In the list of 100 worldwide highest-grossing sweets manufacturers, Roshen was on place 18, not far behind Haribo, Lindt and Arcor. Even rival Yulia Tymoshenko, another presidential candidate, admitted on TV that she buys Roshen chocolates for her family. But Poroshenko's success -- 40 percent of his grosses come from Russia -- has become his misfortune, now that Russian business has fallen off.
Poroshenko Enters Politics
Those who do business in Ukraine, at some point, either get involved in the political world or become politicians themselves. For Poroshenko, the latter was the case, though it took him a long time to find a home: In 1998, he joined the Social Democrats, who were loyal to then President Leonid Kutschma. Two years later he founded his own party, which he called Solidarnost. It later became the Party of the Regions, which turned into the base of the now ousted head of state Victor Yanukovych.
In 2001, he joined the party of opposition leader Victor Yushchenko, entered into parliament on its behalf and financed the 2004 Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, who emerged from the Revolution as president, became the godfather of his daughters, and appointed Porochenko as head of the Security Council, and later, foreign minister.
But Poroshenko didn't accomplish his true goals -- to become either prime minister or head of parliament. He makes his stance toward the West clear early on. "If the will is there," he says in 2009, Ukraine could enter into NATO "in one or two years."
Poroshenko's move into his opponent's camp surprised his Orange Revolution supporters. One Kiev parliamentarian says that he "might have wanted to protect his acquisitions." Poroshenko, on the other hand, claims that he took on the position in order to help bring Ukraine closer to the EU and get Yulia Tymoshenko released from prison. That last part is hard to believe.
Yanukovych supposedly agreed to his conditions - but the day Poroshenko entered into office, he sent the tax police into the billionaire's factories, a warning for him to follow the rules of the presidential family, which had now become as rich as he was.
In hindsight, Poroshenko was lucky to have only been a Yanukovych minister for a few months. After the parliamentary elections of that year, he once again became an MP, forcing him to give up his cabinet position. From that point on he worked in the committee for European Integration. Less than one year later, Yanukovytch called off the signature-ready Association Agreement with the EU and set off the Maidan Revolution.
'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.
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