Petro Poroshenko and the Chocolate Factory

Article published on June 27, 2014
Article published on June 27, 2014

He's a billionaire, an old pal of Putin's, and owner of Roshen, the world's 18th biggest confectionery business. But does Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's new president, have what it takes to smooth over conflicts with Russia and sweet-talk the EU?

Ukraine is going through a par­tic­u­larly rough patch. 2013 ended with protests and riots about for­mer pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovich's mis­man­age­ment of Ukraine's del­i­cate re­la­tion­ships with both Rus­sia and the Eu­ro­pean Union. Since then, Yanukovich has been ousted, and things have got­ten steadily worse, with eco­nomic ten­sions in­creas­ing, the an­nex­ing of Crimea and con­flict on an in­creas­ingly large scale. In a coun­try with an av­er­age salary of just £142 a month, fi­nan­cial ties with its neigh­bour­ing pow­er­houses of Rus­sia and the EU are of the ut­most im­por­tance. Petro Poroshenko, who pre­vi­ously served as the sec­ond min­is­ter of trade and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, was sworn in as pres­i­dent on the sev­enth of June, amid great hopes for the fu­ture of the coun­try. Hav­ing sworn to put an end to the fight­ing and mend ties with both zones, Poroshenko has found him­self at an im­passe – his cease­fire went up in smoke, and the sit­u­a­tion is be­gin­ning to look as if it's not as under con­trol as he would have liked.

June 27th will bring Poroshenko's sign­ing of an as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ment with the EU. But just how is this busi­ness­man-cum-politi­cian set to keep every­body sweet while mak­ing sure he has a fin­ger in all the pies?

Ver­sa­til­ity, poroshenko's call­ing card?

De­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected, Poroshenko sur­prised the west by gain­ing clear-cut pop­u­lar­ity so soon after riots ousted an­other rich, well-con­nected politi­cian from gov­ern­ment. With the eco­nomic cli­mate pre­sent­ing prob­lems to your Ukrain­ian every­man, Poroshenko, with his $1.3 bil­lion em­pire and ver­i­ta­ble man­sion just out­side of Kiev, may not seem the ideal choice. How­ever, the elec­torate is not to be pre­dicted, and his land­slide vic­tory was seen as a true po­ten­tial cat­a­lyst for change.

His ties with Rus­sia are com­plex. Happy to ac­cept the con­tin­ued use of the Russ­ian lan­guage in the east, Poroshenko has al­ways re­mained clear in his re­fusal to en­gage with sep­a­ratists. How­ever, he made it clear back in 2009, when he was work­ing as for­eign min­is­ter, that he thought the way for­ward for Ukraine was as a part of NATO. Strangely, this was some­thing he left out of his pres­i­den­tial man­i­festo.

Is it ver­sa­til­ity that has led to so much of Poroshenko's suc­cess? In pol­i­tics, he has cer­tainly learnt how to jug­gle: in 2000, he founded the Party of Re­gions, through which Yanukovich rose to glory. After only a year, he was a lead­ing sup­porter of Yushchenko (the pres­i­dent of Ukraine from 2005-2010)'s Our Ukraine party. Hav­ing also served as for­eign min­is­ter will surely also have paved the way for man­ag­ing the cat-and-mouse game Ukraine must play with the rest of the world.

Danc­ing water shows: a Recipe for suc­cess

His suc­cess can be at­trib­uted in part to his own­ing a TV sta­tion, to which he is reg­u­larly in­vited for in­ter­views. Not dis­sim­i­lar to the TV de­bates that have worked so suc­cess­fully in the UK to af­firm politi­cians' self-brand­ing, this may be part of the se­cret of Poroshenko's sur­pris­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

Ivan Lo­zowy, an in­de­pen­dent pol­icy an­a­lyst, stated be­fore the elec­tions: “There is noth­ing that he's re­ally done in the short or medium term that even sticks out a lit­tle bit.” Pay­ing to ar­ti­fi­cially boost rank­ings in polls is al­legedly com­mon prac­tice in Ukraine, and Lo­zowy thinks Poroshenko must have used this strat­egy, as he was so un­heard of be­fore the polls.

Per­haps it is only the res­i­dents of Vin­nyt­sia who un­der­stand Poroshenko's true ap­peal. His two con­fec­tionery fac­to­ries in this city have pro­vided over 5000 jobs for lo­cals, all paid at a higher rate than the norm. Add to this Poroshenko's gift to the city: the biggest danc­ing water show in Eu­rope, con­sid­ered one of the most im­pres­sive in the world and equipped with danc­ing lasers and in­built music. In a speech he de­liv­ered there, he claimed that under his pres­i­dency, "What we've man­aged in Vin­nyt­sia, we'll do in the en­tire coun­try.” An im­pres­sive claim, given the high-qual­ity in­fra­struc­ture and clean­li­ness for which the city is renowned.

But Poroshenko's pre­vi­ous suc­cess – both po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial – must surely be weigh­ing on his mind at this point. When 40% of his own in­come comes from Rus­sia, his po­si­tion is be­com­ing more pre­car­i­ous, fi­nan­cially. This has, how­ever, gar­nered him some pub­lic sym­pa­thy – when the trade war with Rus­sia forced an em­bargo on Roshen con­fec­tionery, Poroshenko's busi­ness suf­fered.

With his sights con­tin­u­ally low­er­ing since his elec­tion, it is in­creas­ingly un­clear as to where Ukraine's fu­ture lies. One thing is for sure, Ukraine's fu­ture is now in­trin­si­cally linked to this charis­matic enigma of a politi­cian