EXCLUSIVE

03.31.14

Exclusive Interview: The ‘Chocolate King’ Who Might Save Ukraine

Billionaire candy manufacturer Petro Poroshenko may well be elected president of Ukraine in May. His mission: Take his country into Europe while making peace with Putin.

According to opinion polls, the most popular leader in Ukraine and very possibly its next president is Petro Poroshenko. To be sure, he’s less well known abroad than the mediagenic Yulia Tymoshenko—she of the blond braids—or the towering former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko. But the square-faced 48-year-old Poroshenko is famous inside the country for his confident character, his aura of calm, and the fortune he made making chocolate before he went into politics. (His little gold-foil-wrapped bonbons called "Kyiv Vechirniy," or Kiev in the evening, bring a hint of luxury to daily life in a near-bankrupt nation.)

In the last decade, Poroshenko held several government posts, perhaps most importantly the position of foreign minister for a critical five months in 2009 and 2010 when he managed to complete the text of the now-famous “association agreement” with the European Union. In 2012 he even served as minister of trade and economic development under Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, trying to shepherd the accords toward implementation.

It was the decision by Yanukovych to walk away from the EU association agreement in November 2013 that started the protests that became a revolution and resulted Yanukovych’s overthrow at the end of February. Russia then retaliated by amputating and annexing Ukrainian Crimea and deploying combat troops on the Ukrainian border, bringing on the most dangerous European crisis confronting NATO and the United States in more than a generation.

“People in Russia have a right to their choice if they want to live in an empire, but they need to accept that people in Ukraine have their right to be free.”

Poroshenko says he has no regrets about his role on the EU accord. “I can be proud of that important stage of my political career,” Poroshenko told me in an exclusive interview at his office in Kiev earlier this month. “I am not a savior, but I do everything for the country I love very much.”

There is no question about Poroshenko’s nationalist credentials.  In 2012 Poroshenko, wrote in his Facebook blog: “there has to be just one state language in Ukraine, Ukrainian—that is my position that is not going to change.” The issue—some would say the threat—of “Ukrainization” has been a painful prospect for the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine, and is used by Moscow as justification for its political, economic and military interventions in the country. But Poroshenko insists that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has anything to do with nationalities or languages. His own son met his wife in Russia, in St. Petersburg, a city that “means a lot to me too,” Poroshenko said. The problem, as he framed it, is one of empire: Ukraine wants out of the Russian one.

When Poroshenko spoke about Russia, in fact, he grew uncharacteristically emotional. For the past 15 years, he said, he has been “doing everything to keep a trusting relationship” with Moscow. But at the present stage “the trust has been destroyed.” The Kremlin saw the February revolution in Kiev as a “violent military coup” and considered the government Poroshenko supported “a junta” that came to power illegally.  Moscow officials claimed that the Russian speaking population was suffering under the new regime.

But billionaire Poroshenko, one of the biggest supporters of the street protests, insisted that during the 2004 Orange Revolution and now in the ongoing  “Revolution of Dignity,” the Ukrainian people have chosen freedom. The reason for the lack of trust lies in the different “truths” believed by the Russian and Ukrainian people, largely as the result of the Kremlin’s ferocious propaganda campaign. This year’s revolution in Ukraine “was a victory of unarmed people coming to die for their belief, “ Poroshenko said. “People in Russia have a right to their choice if they want to live in an empire, but they need to accept that people in Ukraine have their right to be free.”

Monday morning in an interview on the television network he owns, Channel 5, Poroshenko said he has “no doubt that in 10 to 11 years, say by 2025, Ukraine will become an EU member." But he cautioned that this is a critical moment, when Ukraine has the world’s attention and support. "This window of opportunity will not stay open for long,” he said. “We should use this short period to demonstrate that we are determined to proceed with the reforms."

For all that, however, as I listened to Poroshenko speaking in his office there were echoes of an old-school Soviet diplomat being very, very careful about what he says. When Poroshenko talks about Putin, for instance, his language is never hateful, always calculated. In a political landscape filled with populist provocateurs, Poroshenko has never played that game, and that may well be why he’s leading all other announced and potential candidates for the critically important presidential elections to be held May 25.

On Saturday, the second most popular candidate, former world heavyweight champion Klitschko, announced that he was withdrawing from the race and throwing his support behind Poroshenko.

That puts heavy pressure on Tymoshenko to do the same at a time when her credibility is waning. In what appears to be yet another public leak of an illegal Russian wiretap last week, she—or someone who sounded like her—was caught saying Putin ought to be killed and nuclear weapons should be used to get rid of the Ukraine’s eight million Russian speakers. So if the pro-European forces in Ukraine are going make common cause behind a single candidate, she’s not likely to be the one.

Poroshenko, for his part, told a crowd of supporters on Saturday, “It would be a betrayal if we did not unite.”

 “The Chocolate King” jokes about his ambitions in a country where government office has been a blessing for the corrupt but a curse for the conscientious. “My favorite job is Petro Poroshenko,” he laughed when we met. “I am happy with the authority and high status this gives me!” (Meanwhile Poroshenko has paid a commercial cost for his views. One of his most important factories is in Russia, and has been closed down by the Putin government on various pretexts.)

Poroshenko reminded me that for the last decade and a half his aim has been to bring Ukraine into the European Union while at the same time keeping good relations with Russia. And according to the Ukrainian media Poroshenko’s strong position in the polls comes from widespread hopes that he is the candidate who can find a way to make peace with Russia even now.

Meanwhile Western diplomats appear, almost literally, to be banking on Poroshenko. Ukrainian media report that the likelihood of a Poroshenko victory in May helped convince Europe and the United States to start sending desperately needed financial aid. Specifically, the International Monetary Fund made a decision to provide Ukraine with a multi-billion-dollar lifeline. What gave the international community confidence that Ukraine’s political turmoil would be stabilized? According to the press, it was Poroshenko’s popularity and the probability that he’ll be elected president.

It’s not that the Chocolate King is squeaky clean. A decade ago, after the initial success of the Orange Revolution, then-President Viktor Yuschenko named Poroshenko to the national security council—then fired him from the post on allegations of corruption. Of course, Poroshenko denied any wrongdoing, and Yuschenko was hardly in a position to point fingers. In Ukrainian politics, the pots are always calling the kettles black.

Earlier this year, Poroshenko was criticized for recruiting and financing extremists during the street fighting in Kiev. Again, he denied the allegations, and he says he has no involvement with nationalists from the extremist Right Sector: “I only met with their leader Dmitry Yarosh two or three times during the revolution,” Poroshenko told me.

What’s striking about Poroshenko is that, unlike most of the country’s oligarchs, who are seen as sucking the lifeblood out of the nation, he has managed to create an image of himself as a hard-working self-made businessman simply trying to serve the state the best way he knows how. And in a country rife with scandals, Poroshenko has dodged quite a few.

Last week, for instance, while Right Sector members declared a vendetta against the minister of interior and threatened to storm the parliament, Poroshenko was discussing security issues with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague in London. As a result of that meeting, Poroshenko had good news for his countrymen: in the very near future, he said, Ukrainians would be able to get free long-term visas to Britain under a new simplified procedure.

Once again Poroshenko enhanced his reputation as a man who can get things done. Ukraine may have to wait a while to join Europe, but at least Ukrainians won’t have to wait so long to go there.