Ukraine’s 'chocolate king' signals strong ties to West, yet can't quit Russia

Ukraine’s president-elect, candymaker Petro Poroshenko, recognizes that Russia will inevitably play a crucial role in his country’s future. But he’s also for building more ties with both the EU and US.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters/File
Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire owner of Ukrainian chocolate manufacture Roshen and president-elect of Ukraine, talks with Reuters reporters in Kiev on April 4, 2014.

The visionary in Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire elected Sunday as Ukraine’s new president, is pro-Western: He foresees his country building a close economic association with the European Union and hopes for stronger political ties with the United States, including closer military cooperation.

But the pragmatist in Mr. Poroshenko recognizes that Russia, Ukraine’s powerful eastern neighbor, will inevitably play a crucial role in his country’s future. The president-elect widely known as the “chocolate king” for the fortune he built from chocolate-making has business interests in Russia and Belarus, and he has pledged to go to Russia to meet with the Russian leadership in the first half of June.

Both Washington and European capitals were careful not to crow over Poroshenko’s first-round victory, even though he was perceived to be the West’s choice.

Taking a cue from the victorious candidate, Western capitals placed the emphasis of their congratulatory statements on the election’s national character and what that said about Ukrainians’ desire for unity. Several thousand votes were cast in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia, although voting was largely impeded in strife-torn Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moscow also expressed satisfaction with the results – taken as a sign by many regional experts that, given the alternatives the election presented, Russian President Vladimir Putin considered Poroshenko the best outcome, and someone he can at least try to work with.

“Putin wants a partner with whom he can deal, and Poroshenko looks like he could be” that person, “no better, no worse,” says Andrew Weiss, a former National Security Council director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “He’s not [Moscow’s] man, but [from Putin’s perspective], it’s better to have a partner in Kiev than no one.”

In his campaign, Poroshenko rejected Russia’s annexation of Crimea – a position that aligns him with the West. But Mr. Putin probably realized that almost any candidate for president of Ukraine would have to take that stance, Russia analysts say, and will now watch for where he takes that position as president.

The reality of Ukraine’s dire economic straits, and the key role Russia will play in Ukraine’s efforts to address them, may very well force Poroshenko to play down the Crimea issue, some Ukraine experts say.

Despite the new president’s “principled stance on Crimea, he will be under strong pressure for fast economic reforms,” says visiting Carnegie Ukraine expert Balázs Jarábik. As a result, he adds, Poroshenko “may have to choose a pragmatic approach toward the Kremlin, whose cooperation will be essential for Ukraine’s economy to survive.”

Progress in Moscow-Kiev relations will depend largely on three factors, Mr. Jarábik says: Kiev’s stance and emphasis on decentralization, arrangements for at least partial repayment of Ukraine’s debt to Russia’s Gazprom, and the new leadership’s treatment of the Crimea issue. 

But even as he seeks to revive his country’s broken dialogue with Moscow, Poroshenko will also be looking to deepen Ukraine’s ties to the West. A likely early step would be signing of an economic association agreement with the European Union to go with the political association signed with the EU in March.

More controversial is the idea of Ukrainian membership in NATO. Poroshenko has said he will not seek membership in the alliance – something that tops Moscow’s list of “nyets” – but it is not an issue that is likely to go away. Recent polls show that about one-third of Ukrainians support joining NATO, a number that is up sharply since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In any case, accession to NATO is a years-long process, so it’s not something Ukraine needs to decide in the short term anyway. But proposals for direct US military assistance to Ukraine are a different matter. Poroshenko says his country needs US aid to rebuff external “aggression,” and a considerable number of mostly Republican senators in America agree. 

About 30 senators have signed on to legislation that would authorize President Obama to deliver up to $100 million in direct military assistance to Ukraine, including for antitank and antiaircraft arms and other weapons.

The White House has shown no enthusiasm for the legislation, however. The Obama administration considers Poroshenko’s top order of business to be uniting the country and addressing its daunting economic challenges.

Given those priorities, the administration must have approved when the “chocolate king” said his first trip outside Kiev as president would be to the restive eastern provinces. Not only is it the most densely populated part of Ukraine outside Kiev, but it’s also home to the country’s dilapidated yet vital industrial base.

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