Inside the flagship candy store owned by Ukraine’s leading presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, the smell of chocolate permeates the air as costumed shop assistants offer to help fill customers’ bags with various flavors of sweets.
“I’ll go for him at the polls, because he has shown what he can do,” said Kateryna Ponomerenko, a retiree who was shopping for miniature chocolates for a gift. “I think we can trust him, even though he’s part of the rich elite.”
According to the latest polls, Ukraine’s "chocolate king," Mr. Poroshenko, has a solid lead in what could be the country’s most important election since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But if he wins, his biggest challenge still lies ahead: winning the hearts and minds of Ukrainians in the country's eastern regions.
The interim government is struggling with pro-Russia rebels in the east who have declared themselves independent and seeking annexation by Russia. And while the rebels are a minority there, many in the east remain skeptical of the interim government in Kiev and a Western-leaning agenda that they fear could destroy their Russia-oriented way of life.
“If Poroshenko wins big in the first round, people will be hoping he can push things forward,” said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the strength of his mandate will be dependent on what happens in the east.”
With just days to go before the May 25 election, Poroshenko is leading with 34 percent in a poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology from April 29 to May 11. His main competitor is Yulia Tymoshenko, the firebrand of the Orange Revolution, who trails far behind at 6 percent. The race is not yet over: 25 percent of voters remain undecided, and if Poroshenko is unable to secure an outright majority, a runoff will be held. But so far, no rival candidate has come close to Poroshenko's popularity.
That support stems in part from hopes that Poroshenko can translate his ability at managing one of the world’s leading candy companies into management of Ukraine, which is teetering on the brink of economic collapse.
Poroshenko, who was born near the southern port city of Odessa and grew up in the central region of Vinnitsa, started his business empire with a cocoa bean import company, before buying up several struggling Soviet-era candy factories in 1996. Analysts now estimate that the company, Roshen, does about $1 billion in sales, while its owner is listed on the Forbes list with a net worth of $1 billion.
In addition to the flagship store on Kiev's center, Roshen has factories in Kiev, Vinnitsa, and Kremenchug in central Ukraine, and in the eastern city of Mariupol. It also has factories in Lithuania and Lipetsk, Russia. Poroshenko also owns car dealerships, shipyards, and one of Ukraine’s most popular television stations, Channel 5. The channel was one of the only stations to provide full coverage during Euromaidan protests.
In politics, Poroshenko served as a minister of foreign affairs for then-Prime Minister Tymochenko, and later as the minister of trade and development for the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. In both positions, and in his current parliament seat, he has been outwardly European-oriented.
Wooing the east
But despite his European leanings, Poroshenko holds some appeal for eastern voters, a voting bloc consisting of nearly 6.5 million. He shares an Orthodox Christian faith with much of the east, and his reputation for paying higher than average wages and providing his employees with health insurance is well known. That could bode well for eastern voters, who are nostalgic for the days when heavy industry workers were rewarded as heroes of the Soviet Union.
During his campaign, he's made several stops in southern and eastern cities, promising decentralization of Ukraine's government structure to give more regional control over self-governance and finances – key demands of disenfranchised eastern voters who do not trust the interim government in Kiev.
“You have to decide locally how to use funds, where to build a kindergarten or a school," he said during a campaign stop in Uzhgorod in western Ukraine, according to local reports. "You have to control your elected representatives in the government so that local communities finally got an opportunity to influence decision-making, determine priorities for the development of cities, towns, districts and regions."
In campaign stumps, Poroshenko has also said that the volatile eastern cities will be among his first visits if elected.
So far, poll numbers show that he is the most popular in candidate in the east – although with only 10 percent of the vote, that's not saying much. Undecided votes account for 32 percent of those polled in the east, while another 32 percent said they would not go to the polls.
Poroshenko stands to benefit from the lack of any pro-Russia champion in the east. Though former President Yanukovych was viewed as reliably in sync with Russia, and thus earned eastern Ukraine's votes, no one has stepped in to fill the void he left. "This is the first time since independence that there is no serious presidential candidate that we could describe as pro-Russia," said Viktor Zamiatin of the Razumkov Center in Kiev.
Perhaps most helpful to Poroshenko in the east is who he is not: Tymoshenko. Though well regarded in the country's west, Tymoshenko is widely reviled in the east as corrupt and a criminal. In the absence of a strong pro-Russia candidate, Poroshenko may earn votes by simply being the least antagonistic to eastern sensibilities.
But that assumes the May 25 election moves forward in the east at all. Separatist rebels Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have declared themselves independent republics and have said the elections will not take place in those regions.
The bear in the room
Poroshenko faces major obstacles to a successful presidency outside of the east as well. Mr. Wilson points out that Poroshenko is an independent member of parliament, meaning he lacks a party to back him. As such, he will have to work closely with various factions to push reforms through parliament. It’s still not clear who would form his team should he be elected, but most observers believe he has a good working relationship with the current prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
He will also have to enact tough economic reforms demanded of Ukraine as part of the $17 billion International Monetary Fund’s aid package. And he will have to oversee Ukraine's major political structural reforms to decentralize the government, a long and arduous project that has already faced opposition.
And his support for integrating Ukraine more closely with the West has also caused rifts with Russia, which last year banned his chocolates in what appeared to be a Kremlin signal that there would be consequences if Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union.
The sanctions on his business were significant, since Roshen has a huge market in Russia. But Poroshenko remained focused on pushing for Ukraine’s European orientation and need for dismantling the endemic corruption in the political and business spheres. Even before he knew he’d run for president, he was quoted as saying that he loses more money from corruption and tax raids in Ukraine than he did from the Russian-imposed sanctions on his sweets.
Mr. Yanukovych later rejected the EU deal, and when protesters took to the streets, Poroshenko went with them, frequently making motivational speeches to anti-government crowds from the Maidan’s central stage. Russia again retaliated last month by forcing the closure of the Roshen factory in Lipetsk, Russia, citing a trademark violation.
But Poroshenko has repeatedly – if opaquely – said on the campaign trail that he will mend relations with Russia “within three months” of taking office.
“I don’t know what he means when he says he’ll find a way to settle with Russia in three months, but I believe he’ll find a way,” says Alexander Paskhaver, the president of the Centre for Economic Development, who has served as an advisor to two former Ukrainian presidents. “He’s proven he is a man of compromise, and that’s rare in Ukrainian politicians.”