LONDON— Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko, a self-made confectionery magnate worth an estimated $1.3 billion, has emerged as the front-runner in opinion polls leading up to Ukraine's presidential election scheduled for May. The surveys show the one-time foreign minister who has pledged to rescue Ukraine’s economy and face down Russia, well ahead of his main rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Petro Poroshenko is known as the ‘Chocolate King’ in Ukraine, having built a fortune on confectionery. But he is no stranger to politics.
He was a regular speaker at Kyiv’s Independence Square at the height of the recent protests, denouncing corruption and calling for membership in the European Union. Orysia Lutsevych is at the London-based policy institute Chatham House.
“He became so popular during the recent protests because he was giving some kind of confidence in terms of his direct action, and also because he was not affiliated with the existing political parties,” said Lutsevych.
Poroshenko has received the backing of opposition leader and former boxer Vitaly Klitschko. In a recent interview, Poroshenko said he would build on Ukraine’s revolution.
“It was born, the new country," he said. "It was born the new people. But unfortunately it left old politicians and I tried to do my best that the politicians, the government, the authorities and the president be adequate to the new people from the revolution.”
Poroshenko played a big role in the Orange Revolution in 2004 alongside his now rival Yulia Tymoshenko - becoming foreign minister under the then President Viktor Yushchenko. He built his fortune on the back of his giant chocolate company, Roshen, alongside media and manufacturing interests. Observers say he is cultivating an image as a safe pair of hands.
“You can come here in a very safe, in a very nice country with a very experienced labor with a very effective cheap cost for creation of businesses and the only obstacle for doing that is the corruption," said Poroshenko. "That's why this is the top priority for the modernization.”
His status as a self-made billionaire sets him apart from Ukraine’s other business elites - who are often seen as corrupt, says Orysia Lutsevych of Chatham House.
“He has good understanding of the way international financial markets are working, and he is on a good term basis with a lot of Western politicians," said Lutsevych. "But also, he is somebody who understands Russia because he is doing a lot of his business with the confectionery and sugars in Russia.”
But Poroshenko’s relations with the Kremlin are poor, says Russia specialist Andrew Foxall of analyst group the Henry Jackson Society.
“His Roshen confectionery business was subject to trade sanctions and embargoes by the Russian government. The business lost an awful lot of money," he said. "He lost an awful lot of money. More recently, Poroshenko’s assets in Russia have been targeted.”
Petro Poroshenko has said he will never accept Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea. Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border.
Whoever wins the May 25 election, victory will mark just the beginning of the daunting challenges that face Ukraine’s next leader