KIEV – He has chocolate factories galore, is a self-made billionaire and has been both Cabinet minister and occasional revolutionary.
Now Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko is the favorite to become president in a make-or-break election, pledging to find a diplomatic way out of the country’s crisis and put relations with Russia back on track.
Opinion polls give the 48-year-old pro-Western nationalist a resounding lead over his nearest rival, Ukraine’s “Iron Lady,” Yulia Tymoshenko, who is considered a much more polarizing figure.
Poroshenko has boldly proclaimed he is the man to save the day.
“I guarantee you that within three months, the situation in the east will be resolved,” Poroshenko told reporters last week during a stop in Cherkasy, the main city in Ukraine’s central agricultural belt.
A recent opinion poll gave him almost 45 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, not quite breaking the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff on June 15.
The tall, slightly graying tycoon is one of the country’s 10 richest men, with a fortune estimated at around $1.3 billion (€950 billion) by Forbes magazine, which described him as Ukraine’s Willy Wonka.
A shrewd politician who has flip-flopped between governments for more than a decade, Poroshenko was the only oligarch to openly back the pro-European protest movement that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, under whom he served as economics minister.
“Poroshenko is indeed the candidate of consensus,” the Robert Schuman Foundation said in an election analysis.
Often seen handing out chocolates, or taking to the stage to denounce endemic corruption, Poroshenko became a favorite figure at Kiev’s protest camp on Independence Square.
“The time when politicians lie to people is over,” he said in announcing his candidacy.
His ticket was further boosted when boxer-turned-opposition-icon Vitali Klitschko decided against running for president himself and instead backed Poroshenko.
He was the only politician to fly to Crimea in a bid to negotiate with pro-Russian troops who seized parliament after Yanukovych fell, but he was angrily chased off by demonstrators.
He said he was ready to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said two issues were not negotiable — Ukraine’s pro-Europe direction and Crimea, which he insisted “is and will remain Ukrainian.”
Having held several Cabinet portfolios and built strong links across the business community, many see him as an experienced and capable pair of hands to stem an economy in free fall and unite the country.
Analysts say he is also more palatable to the electorate than the controversial Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was jailed for abuse of power by the ousted regime, and other less-experienced politicians.
Unlike most of Ukraine’s influence-wielding oligarchs who made a killing swallowing up state assets in the chaotic years that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, Poroshenko’s wealth is self-made.
He started out selling cocoa beans, buying up several confectionery plants that he later united into Eastern European candy giant Roshen, which produces 450,000 tons of sweets a year, according to its website.
He also owns companies that make cars and buses, a shipyard and opposition television network Kanal 5, which broadcast live from Independence Square at the height of the revolution that left some 100 people dead.
Poroshenko’s fortune has, however, taken a hit from the current political crisis and the bitter standoff with Russia, a key market.
One of the first difficulties came last year. As Ukraine neared the signing of an EU pact fervently supported by Poroshenko, Russia banned chocolate imports from his Roshen factory.
The married father of four was born in the small southwestern town of Bolgrad and studied economics at Kiev State University.
He entered the turbulent world of Ukrainian politics in 1998 as a lawmaker for a grouping loyal to then-President Leonid Kuchma. In 2000, the oligarch was one of the founders of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
But in 2002, he changed sides and joined forces with his close friend Viktor Yushchenko, who later became a hero of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and ultimately ascended to the presidency.
Poroshenko played a major role in the revolution that erupted when Yanukovych won the presidency in a poll widely viewed as rigged.
Under Yushchenko, Poroshenko was foreign minister and president of the central bank.
He had a famous falling out with Tymoshenko, which resulted in both of them being fired by Yushchenko. He was accused of abuse of power over the evaluation of a state metals firm, but the probe was dropped.
And in another switch, he was appointed as economics minister by Yanukovych in 2012. Later that year, he was elected to parliament as an independent candidate and had hinted at running for mayor of Kiev before the current crisis.