Ukraine Election The Chocolate King Rises
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.
- Part 1: The Chocolate King Rises
- Part 2: 'Piss Off, You Jewish Garbage!'