KIEV, Ukraine —
After a leading contender dropped out of Ukraine’s presidential race Saturday, the hopes of many Ukrainians and their Western supporters are now
on a man known as the Willy Wonka of Ukraine, the billionaire owner of a chocolate-candy company.
Petro Olekseyevich Poroshenko, 48, was the highest-profile Ukrainian industrialist to support the protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych last month, and he has for several weeks led in polls for the May 25 presidential election.
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Known as a centrist who had previously worked for both pro-Western and pro-Russian governments, he became a strong advocate of integration with Europe after Russia banned imports of his chocolate.
On Saturday, the candidate who had been running second in polls, the former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, withdrew from the race, throwing his support behind Poroshenko and solidifying his lead.
The shuffle leaves Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and prisoner under the ousted government, as the remaining credible competitor to Poroshenko. She had been in third place, according to a survey by four Ukrainian polling agencies last week.
The former pro-government party, whose association with Yanukovych makes it a longshot, nominated Mikhail Dobkin, an oligarch with close ties to the former president, on Saturday.
Poroshenko, also known as “the chocolate king” for his ownership of Roshen, the Ukrainian chocolate manufacturer, won notice during the anti-government protests last month for climbing onto a backhoe to prevent a demonstrator from driving it into police lines.
Until then, the man with the beefy face and mop of salt and pepper hair was hardly known for drama.
In a country in which politicians tend to be flamboyant and boisterous, Poroshenko weighs his words and speaks in measured, sometimes monotonous, technicalities.
In fact, political analysts say, his staid manner may be part of his appeal in a country leery of further dramatic change.
Poroshenko might have remained merely a chocolatier with a modest political career if not for Russian actions that started last summer as part of an effort to apply economic pressure on pro-European businessmen to discourage the country from signing a trade deal with the European Union.
Russia banned his chocolate, ostensibly on the grounds that it posed health risks beyond the usual ones associated with candy, costing him millions in lost sales.
Poroshenko reacted angrily. Rather than buckle, he financially supported the pro-European Union opposition and won wide support for it.
In an interview in his office in Kiev, he highlighted the economic skills he said he brings from businesses that, aside from sweets, also include media, shipping, agriculture and automobiles, and explained the limits of possible compromise with Russia.
“I have experience in how to build up a new investment climate,” he said. “I know how to build zero tolerance to corruption. I know how to build a court system. I know how to create a positive, absolutely new page of Ukrainian history.”
For him to win, he will need to persuade Ukrainians to overlook their wariness of someone who has made a career of combining business with government.
A member of Parliament, he is also a former chairman of the national security council and a former minister of foreign affairs and of the economy.
He began his political career in 1998 as a legislator loyal to the ruling pro-Russian government, before throwing his support in 2001 behind the opposition politician Viktor Yushchenko, who would rise to power and win the presidency three years later in the pro-democracy Orange Revolution.
Though that government became mired in scandal, Poroshenko remained one of the most prominent and powerful opposition voices in the country.
Like other tycoons throughout post-Soviet countries, Ukraine’s capitalized on the flawed privatization of publicly held assets to amass enormous fortunes.
Poroshenko parlayed early profits from consumer goods trading to buy Ukraine’s rundown candy factories for a pittance in the 1990s, and he later moved into government positions.
“He bought his way in; that’s the way it works in Ukraine,” said Ivan Lozowy, the director of a policy research group in Kiev, adding that no real evidence of malfeasance had ever come out.
Poroshenko’s reputation as a moderate who has tried to straddle the political divide between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east and as an economic modernizer has clearly intrigued Western governments, who have wagered vast sums and much national prestige on the proposition that Ukraine’s teetering domestic politics can be stabilized, with a goal of thwarting a threatened Russian invasion and a new war in Europe.
Poroshenko, whose daughter-in-law is Russian, met last week with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and his leading position in the race reportedly gave the International Monetary Fund confidence to agree to release an $18 billion aid package.
A leading position for a centrist could also elevate the chances of a negotiated resolution with Russia.
Yet even as Poroshenko’s political ambitions became clear, Russian authorities stepped up their economic pressure against his businesses, just this month raiding and shutting two Roshen chocolate factories in the Russian city of Lipetsk worth $200 million.
The problem in finding a resolution with Russia, Poroshenko said, is that while the Kremlin’s military action in Crimea caused Russians to rally around the flag, it also did the same for Ukrainians, erasing any goodwill toward Russia.
The chances of any candidate who openly endorses Russian proposals winning the election are vanishingly small.
Poroshenko, for all his moderate leanings, flatly rejected Russia’s proposal for the federalization of Ukraine as allowing “somebody in the Russian government trying to tell us what type of governmental system we should have.”
He cited polls showing Ukrainians who viewed Russia positively dropping to 20 percent from 92 percent after the Russian army invaded Crimea this month.
Rather than agreeing to rewrite its constitution, Poroshenko said, the Ukrainian government’s response to Russian troops massing on the eastern border should be “if the aggression continues against the rest of the country, the Ukrainian army will open fire.”
Still, he has held up his experience running chocolate factories in Russia, along with his job as foreign minister, as proof he can work with the Russians.
In fact, before the Russian ban, his company had bet on the Russian market: Roshen came out with a line of Russian Classic candy bars reviving 18 Soviet brands like the Seagull bar, a milk-chocolate slab with a beach scene on the wrapper.