Ukraine's Vague President-in-Waiting Is More Than a 'Chocolate King'

By Craig Mellow  MAY 12, 2014 10:23 AM

Detractors have labeled front-runner Petro Poroshenko an opportunistic "flip-flopper," but alone among Ukrainian oligarchs, he has twice stuck his neck out for a cause.

 


Few leaders in history have had to hit the ground running with the same intensity that will be required of Petro Poroshenko, who may take office as president of Ukraine as soon as two weeks from today. Poroshenko is leading in polls by a mile; the only question seems to be whether he will win an outright majority on May 25 or require a runoff a few weeks later. Yet he has attracted little attention around the world and remains a studiously vague figure to his own electorate.

That's partly the media's fault. Men in ski masks waving Kalashnikovs, like the so-called separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine, are an irresistible draw for reporters -- the more so if they succeed in provoking actual bloodshed. Other stories, like who becomes president in two weeks, fall by the wayside.   

But Poroshenko has also run a curious sort of front-porch campaign that has left his positions indefinite on various burning issues: how much force he's willing to use to clear out those men in ski masks, how much autonomy he envisions subsequently for Ukraine's restive regions, how he'll keep the country warm next winter if Russia's Gazprom (OTCMKTS:OGZPY) stops shipping gas as promised, and who his prime minister might be, among others. Meanwhile, he has made some wild promises that could come back to haunt him -- that Ukraine will rid itself of Russian gas imports by 2016, and definitely join the European Union at some point.  

To back up a bit, the 48-year-old Poroshenko is clearly the best candidate in the ring, and Ukraine is probably lucky to have him at this perilous moment. His sound-bite tag as the country's "chocolate king" trivializes a very distinguished career in business and politics. His estimated $1.3 billion fortune is largely self-made. He started in the early 1990s buying up decrepit Ukrainian candy factories and forging them into a flourishing brand called Roshen. Then he moved onto media, controlling the country's most independent TV station.
           
Detractors have labeled Poroshenko an opportunistic "flip-flopper" because he has allied himself with a string of political parties since entering parliament in 1998. But alone among Ukrainian oligarchs, he stuck his neck out twice for a cause. His Channel Five started supporting both the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 and this year's Maidan uprising months before their victory was clear. The flip-flop charge stems from the fact that he has worked as a cabinet official for every leader of the past decade: Orange Revolution hero Viktor Yushchenko, his internal rival Yulia Tymoshenko, and the enemy they shared, Viktor Yanukovych. But having connections across the political spectrum -- not to mention among his tight, influential circle of fellow billionaires -- should only be a plus as Ukraine attempts to heal the bloody wounds of the past few months.
             
It's also appropriate that Poroshenko not publicly second-guess acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, who has faced excruciating choices of life and death in the East. Still, with the Western world expending substantial political capital to support the Ukrainian election -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and previously reserved French President Francois Hollande lately threatened Russia with fresh economic sanctions if it undermines the poll -- one might wish to know more about the almost certain winner.
           
Poroshenko's one detailed interview with the English language press, published in late April in the Washington Post, dances around a lot of big questions. His administration will have "zero tolerance for corruption." It will employ "more than 500 people graduated from Yale, Harvard, [and] Oxford." Regions will have "financial autonomy" but "no chance" at any so-called federalization.

Communications with local press have been similarly schematic. The campaign has featured no debates, and all of the candidates have stayed literally on safe ground, largely avoiding visits to the East.
          
The Free World will just have to wait a bit for a more complete picture of the horse it's effectively backing in Ukraine with rhetoric and cash. Poroshenko's first decision will be designating a new premier -- or, technically, proposing a prime ministerial candidate to parliament -- and here the Kiev scuttlebutt isn't encouraging. Several reports have him offering the post to Tymoshenko, who aside from symbolizing Ukraine's corrupt past has staked out a vituperative position concerning the Eastern uprising. Back in March, Russian media published a bugged phone call on which Tymoshenko seems to advocate "taking up arms to wipe out these damn" ethnic Russians and "getting the whole world to rise up so that not even scorched earth is left of Russia" itself. Tymoshenko, who's running a distant second to Poroshenko in the presidential race, admitted it was her voice on the tape, but claimed that a montage had mangled her meaning. Such subtleties would likely be lost on Donetsk and Moscow if she returns to power, though.
           
Happily, political speculation is often inaccurate in the ex-Soviet Union, as elsewhere, and Poroshenko himself has signaled a more conciliatory stance toward the East -- the only sensible one at this point, considering the ineffectiveness of Kiev's armed response. He recently promised that his first act as president would be a trip to Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, the hotbed of discontent with what separatists have labeled the "Kiev junta." The president-in-waiting promised, "My first steps will be to remove armed men from Ukrainian streets." But whose armed men, his own or the other side's (and how), he left for later clarification. That's the sort of campaign it has been in Ukraine. 
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