KIEV, Ukraine — On a Sunday in December when the Ukrainian uprising seemed about to tip into wide-scale violence, Petro Poroshenko, a pro-Western billionaire, thrust himself between anti-government protesters and riot-police officers clashing outside the presidential headquarters, climbed on a bulldozer that was threatening to plow through the crowd and grabbed an orange plastic megaphone.
“Friends, calm down,” he shouted, as pro-government thugs brought in to antagonize the demonstrators cursed him and hurled anti-Semitic slurs, though he is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox faith, not Jewish.
As chaos swirled, Poroshenko, 48, stood his ground, helping keep injuries to a minimum, but also cementing his status as a leader of the pro-European opposition and defying the stereotype of the superrich as above it all.
Now, with less than a week to go until a presidential election here, Poroshenko is once again at the center of a fracas that most of his fellow oligarchs would rather avoid. The latest polls show Poroshenko, a confection magnate known as the Chocolate King, as the heavy favorite, likely to avoid a runoff with his strongest opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
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With the country still roiled by separatist violence in the east, the growing air of inevitability around Poroshenko, who has deep business interests in Russia, has redrawn the Ukraine conflict.
It has presented the Kremlin with the prospect of a clear negotiating partner, apparently contributing, officials and analysts say, to a softening in the stance of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
After weeks of threatening an invasion, Putin now seems to have closed off the possibility of a Crimea-style land grab in the east, and even issued guarded support for the election to go forward.
“You can have a kind of a civil war and this kind of gray zone and be completely separated and face a higher degree of economic sanctions,” said Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine at the Atlantic Council, describing the choice facing Putin. “Or you can see if it’s possible to bargain with this new guy, who has businesses in Russia, who has never been known to be a big ultranationalist.”
Poroshenko is a veteran of Ukrainian politics, having served as foreign minister under President Viktor Yushchenko; as economics minister under the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych; and as a longtime member of Parliament, including a stint as speaker.
“The reasoning on Poroshenko is that he is a pragmatist and he was in the Yanukovych government,” Karatnycky said. “He is a person who is a dealmaker. From that point of view, it may mean that Putin is willing to give it a chance of trying to get something out of this.”
Exactly what Putin wants to get remains to be seen. Some analysts believe he wants a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO. Others think he will settle only for a federalized government that permanently weakens Kiev, while still others believe he will continue destabilizing the country.
Recently, Poroshenko has struck a conciliatory tone, promising to mend ties with Russia and saying at a news conference Sunday that he opposed holding a referendum on Ukrainian membership in NATO. He also has sought to bring normalcy to the campaign, assuring voters that he will provide security if elected but stressing a more traditional message: jobs.
“A new way of life means to be well off,” Poroshenko said, repeating his campaign slogan during a recent visit to a turbine factory in the eastern city of Kharkiv. “A new way of life means that the priority of any government, any authority should be to create new jobs. Our first goal is to guarantee security to all who live in Ukraine, to lead us out of the state of military tension.”
In recent weeks, he has kept some distance from the provisional government, which is viewed with deep suspicion in the east.
Poroshenko’s path to the presidency was eased substantially in March when his main rival, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, agreed to drop out of the race, endorse Poroshenko and run for mayor of Kiev instead.
The deal was reached at a meeting in Vienna orchestrated by Dmitry Firtash, the gas-trading tycoon, who was a longtime political patron of Yanukovych and has close business ties to Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant. Firtash’s role has raised concerns among some Western officials who are hoping to prevent a recurrence of surreptitious and corrupt side deals that have bedeviled Ukraine since Soviet times.
During a recent 90-minute debate between Poroshenko and two other candidates, his positions were mostly uncontroversial, but with a clear Western bent.
“The main direction of development has to be European integration,” he said at one point, “And it’s not a subject for discussion.”
Poroshenko’s support for European integration will inevitably complicate his talks with Russia if he is elected. There is also a personal element to any negotiations. The Russian government has seized and closed a main factory and warehouse of his company, Roshen, in Lipetsk in southern Russia.
Among Ukraine’s political cognoscenti, Poroshenko’s election is regarded these days as a foregone conclusion. “He is going to be president,” said Mustafa Nayyem, a reporter with the online news site Ukrainska Pravda who is leading a team preparing the questions for debates on Channel 1, the national television station.
Poroshenko’s views already carry heavy influence in the provisional government in Kiev, including his belief that the government must crack down on armed insurgents in the east.
In some respects, Poroshenko is already being treated as president-in-waiting. In recent weeks, he has been meeting regularly with world leaders.
But while the West seems excited about the prospect of a Poroshenko presidency, some good-government advocates in Ukraine fear that Poroshenko’s business interests and his ties to other oligarchs may mean he would largely maintain the status quo.