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"Ukraine's Willy Wonka" Could Be Its Next President, Too


In Kiev he is known as the “Chocolate King.” He’s “Ukraine’s Willy Wonka,” its grey cardinal, its dark horse, its prodigal son. Soon, Petro Poroshenko might also be Ukraine’s president.

According to a poll conducted last week in Kiev, Poroshenko leads the race for the Ukrainian presidency, which is scheduled to be decided in an election on May 25. Of those surveyed, 20 percent supported Poroshenko over the more recognizable figures of the Ukrainian opposition: boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko came in second with 12 percent and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko ranked third with only 9 percent.

Just last month, however, experts wouldn’t even consider the thought of a Poroshenko presidency. “He is publicly not a very attractive figure,” historian Valeriy Solovey told the Voice of Russia in February, citing Poroshenko’s rumored ties to Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector. According to the same article, “last year no more than 5 percent of Ukrainians were prepared to elect Poroshenko as their president.” His immense wealth and business connections have made him a suspect politician in the past, but things are different now. With the new Ukrainian government flailing, helpless to stymie a Russian invasion and wholly dependent on international aid, Poroshenko has emerged as a remarkably attractive political figure in Ukraine. His public approval rating has risen quickly even over the past several weeks, and he is being widely cited in the foreign press as the voice of the new government, which went so far as to dub him “the CEO of the revolution.”

Until recently Poroshenko, 48, had kept something of a low profile. He’s been a player in Ukrainian politics for 16 years and has been considered for almost as many government posts, but has only held a handful. He owns Ukraine’s largest candy company, Roshen (the name derives from Poroshenko), and the opposition television network Kanal 5, which helped fuel the Orange Revolution and broadcast live from the Maidan at the height of this winter’s protests. Roshen is part of an even bigger business empire, Ukprominvest Trade LLC, which includes “five confectionary plants and a business that sells foreign-made automobiles and motorcycles, and also manufactures domestic motor vehicles and ships,” according to Radio Free Europe. The chocolate company is one of Eastern Europe’s largest candy makers, specializing “in treats preferred by residents of the former Soviet Union,” as the New York Times put it. Poroshenko has made a killing off of nostalgia for Soviet kitsch, and Russia is his most profitable market. But don’t mistake him for an oligarch of the typical post-Soviet mold (his $1.3 billion net worth has often led reporters to lump him in with that bunch)—Poroshenko’s wealth is mostly self-made, an important if slight distinction in a country where oligarchic corruption is endemic.

Doing business with Russia has molded Poroshenko into the type of man who might be able to lead Ukraine out of this crisis. He has long stressed maintaining good relations with the Russian Federation so that Russia will keep buying Ukrainian goods, while still demanding Ukraine’s European integration. He’s a pragmatist, and his businesses are largely “crisis-resistant,” as the Kyiv Post put it. If elected, he’ll likely be able to steer Ukraine toward financial solvency.

Poroshenko grew up in the town of Bolhrad, which sits on Ukraine’s Moldovan Border, three hours from Odessa. He’s a devotee of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, attended Kiev State University, and is reported to have quite the southern temper. He got his start by selling cocoa beans and quickly moved on to buying confectionary plants. Eventually, he united his properties under the Roshen name. 

Poroshenko was first elected to public office in 1998, when he was 33 years old, as a parliamentary representative for the rural city of Vinnytsia. He was part of the Social Democratic Party, but by 2000 he had separated from that bloc and formed his own party called “Party of Solidarity of Ukraine.” Then he ditched them and spent a brief period as a member of the Party of Regions—ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s party. But that didn’t last long either—by 2002 Poroshenko was running the parliamentary campaign of Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, and had found his political home.“Poroshenko has been able to interact with completely different political forces, often mutually antagonistic, which is typical for the representative of a post-Soviet Ukrainian ‘party in power,’” journalist Andriy Skumin writes. “Ideology is secondary; power always comes first.”

The ideology that guides Poroshenko is the same that guided Putin for over a decade: profit. Russia rode rising oil prices to economic prosperity, which helped Putin keep public opinion in his favor—that’s now beginning to unravel, which is part of the reason Russia is trying to assert itself as a geopolitical force. But using profit as a guide seems like it might work out better for Poroshenko: he has been pushing for European integration for so long because he knows that’s the best way to ensure Ukrainian economic growth, and has already started expanding his companies west. He supported the EU association agreement that Yanukovych refused to sign in November under pressure from the Kremlin, and his vocal support of the EU got Roshen banned from Russia for alleged “systemic violations” of health regulations. Still, Poroshenko has said that his “business suffers more from being raided by Ukraine’s security and tax men than it does from Russia’s sanctions.” He values efficiency above all, and that has driven his consistent support for Ukraine’s democratic opposition. Addressing protesters in Kiev's Maidan on February 9, Poroshenko tried to energize the crowd by telling them that thanks to corruption, "You have been robbed of 10 percent of your income.”

Poroshenko started Kanal 5 in 2003 and the channel became known as the opposition’s flagship media outlet, credited with the success of the Orange Revolution and now called “one of Ukraine’s most balanced TV channels.” Kanal 5 journalists went on a much-publicized hunger strike when the government tried to shut it down in 2004, just before the revolution. When the Orange movement succeeded and Yanukovych was forced out, Poroshenko expected newly-installed President Yushchenko to make him prime minister. But this time his business connections held him back—the new government was in a prime position to take revenge on the ousted Kuchma-Yanukovych faction, and Poroshenko, Radio Free Europe wrote at the time, was not “totally free of the temptation to mete out ‘economic justice’ and promote his ‘wronged’ associates.” He became head of the National Security and Defense Council instead, and Yulia Tymoshenko was appointed prime minister. They did not get along, and Poroshenko was soon forced out.

But he was not forced out of power—Poroshenko became president of Ukraine’s national bank and served as minister of foreign affairs from 2009-2010, until Yanukovych became president. Most recently, he has served as minister of trade and economic development and is a member of the Ukrainian parliament. This year, his role as one of the primary funders of the revolution has made him something of a beloved figure in the media, and he has emerged as the voice of the Ukrainian government perhaps even more so than interim President Oleksandr Turchynov or his prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In a notable but short interview with CNN in January, for example, Poroshenko stressed the economic elements of the escalating crisis and was asked if he would become the next prime minister of Ukraine (the anchor left the question of president aside—Yanukovych had not yet fled the country). Poroshenko tried to deflect: "One of the representatives from the opposition—we have several potential candidates—[is] ready to be prime minister, to do the absolutely necessary reforms, to bring back democracy to Ukraine," he answered. By "we," of course, he meant "me."