Poroshenko: the chocolate king poised to lead Ukraine

20th May 2014, Comments 0 comments

He has chocolate factories galore, is a self-made billionaire and has been both cabinet minister and occasional revolutionary.

Now Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko is favourite to become president in a make-or-break election on Sunday, pledging to find a diplomatic way out of the country's crisis and put relations with Russia back on track.

Opinion polls give the 47-year-old pro-Western nationalist a resounding lead over his nearest rival, Ukraine's "iron lady" Yulia Tymoshenko, who is considered a much more polarising figure.

Poroshenko has boldly proclaimed he is the man to save the day.

"If I'm elected I will fix the crisis with Russia in three months," he told students on a campaign visit to the eastern city of Kharkiv last week.

He said he planned to hold a four-way meeting immediately after the election between Ukraine, the EU, Russia and the United States to develop "an action plan, a roadmap, for stabilisation".

The tall, slightly greying tycoon is one of the country's 10 richest men with a fortune estimated at around $1.3 billion (950 billion euros) by Forbes magazine, which described him as Ukraine's Willy Wonka.

A shrewd politician who has flip-flopped between governments for more than a decade, Poroshenko was the only Ukrainian oligarch to openly back the pro-European protest movement that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, under whom he served as economics minister.

"Poroshenko is indeed the candidate of consensus," the Robert Schuman Foundation said in an analysis on the election.

Often seen handing out chocolates, or taking to the stage to denounce endemic corruption, Poroshenko became a favourite figure at Kiev's protest camp on Independence Square.

"The time when politicians lied to people is over," he said when announcing his candidacy.

His ticket was further boosted when boxer-turned-opposition icon Vitali Klitschko decided against running for president himself to back Poroshenko.

He has also been the only politician to fly to Crimea in a bid to negotiate with pro-Russian troops who seized parliament after Yanukovych fell, but he was angrily chased off by demonstrators.

"I am sure that a responsible Ukrainian government will be able to get Crimea back. Crimea will forever be Ukrainian," Poroshenko said of the peninsula now annexed by Russia.

Having held several cabinet portfolios and built strong links across the business community, many see him as an experienced and capable pair of hands to stem an economy in freefall and unite the country.

Analysts say he is also more palatable to the electorate than controversy-dogged Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was jailed for abuse of power by the ousted regime, and other less experienced politicians.

Unlike most of Ukraine's influence-wielding oligarchs who made a killing swallowing up state assets in the chaotic years that followed the Soviet Union's fall, Poroshenko's wealth is self-made.

He started out selling cocoa beans, buying up several confectionary plants which he later united into Eastern European candy giant Roshen, which produces 450,000 tonnes of sweets a year, according to its website.

He also owns companies that make cars and buses, a shipyard and opposition television network Kanal 5 which broadcast live from Independence Square at the height of the revolution which left some 100 people dead.

Poroshenko's fortune has however taken a hit from the current political crisis and the bitter standoff with Russia, a key market.

One of the first difficulties came last year. As Ukraine neared the signing of an EU pact fervently supported by Poroshenko, Russia banned chocolate imports from his Roshen factory.

- Switching sides -

The married father-of-four was born in the small southwestern town of Bolgrad and studied economics at Kiev State University.

He entered the turbulent world of Ukrainian politics in 1998 as a lawmaker for a grouping loyal to then-president Leonid Kuchma. In 2000, the oligarch was one of the founders of Yanukovych's Regions Party.

But in 2002, he changed sides and joined forces with his close friend Viktor Yushchenko, who later became a hero of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and president of Ukraine.

Poroshenko played a major role in the revolution which erupted when Yanukovych won the presidency in a poll widely viewed as rigged.

Under Yushchenko, Poroshenko was foreign minister and president of the central bank.

He had a famous falling out with Tymoshenko, which resulted in both of them being fired by Yushchenko. He was accused of abuse of power over the evaluation of a state metals firm, but the investigation was dropped.

And in another switch, he was appointed as economics minister by Yanukovych in 2012. Later that year he was elected to parliament as an independent candidate and had hinted at running for mayor of Kiev before the current crisis.


© 2014 AFP

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