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Chocolate king tipped as Ukraine's next president

Thursday - 5/22/2014, 11:36pm  ET

People react during a rally supporting Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko in Uman, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Presidential vote in Ukraine is scheduled for May 25. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Associated Press

UMAN, Ukraine (AP) -- In Ukraine's superheated political scene, presidential front-runner Petro Poroshenko cuts a notably cool figure.

The soft-spoken candy tycoon has a pragmatic bent and a penchant for compromise -- which may be an asset for Ukraine as it tries to cool tensions with Russia while cultivating closer ties with the European Union.

Since independence in 1991, Ukraine's politics has been dominated by figures holding dogmatic positions even to the point of self-destruction. Poroshenko, in contrast, gets criticized for lacking any obvious ideology, making him an enigma at a time when Ukraine is struggling to find a clear direction.

But as Ukraine struggles through a complex and frequently violent crisis, voters seem to think a flexible man is what the country needs right now. Opinion polls show the 48-year-old Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates in Sunday's presidential election. His 35 percent support is not enough to win the first round outright, but the same polls indicate he'd win the runoff three weeks later.

The presidential election is a critical step for Ukraine. Russia, which the West alleges is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, claims the acting government is a junta. A credible election would bring a level of legitimacy to Ukraine's government and undermine Moscow's argument that it needs to intervene in the country's affairs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cautiously endorsed the election, describing it as a "step in the right direction."

Moscow, however, stopped short of endorsing any candidate and made it clear that it does not support anyone in particular, because it views the ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych as illegitimate.

Poroshenko is a staunch EU supporter but says it's important to mend ties with Russia quickly. Relations with Moscow should be equal and should not undermine Ukrainians' desire for closer ties with the European Union, he says.

"We must build a relationship with our neighbor, Russia, in a way that they would first of all ensure the security of Ukrainian citizens," he said on a campaign trail earlier this week. But "in order to speak with Russia as equals, we have to build a strong state."

Facing criticism for his stint in Yanukovych's government as economics minister in 2012, Poroshenko told the Ukrainian Korrespondent magazine last year that he was ready to "put his reputation at risk" in preparing the ground for a trade deal with the European Union.

Above all, it's Poroshenko's levelheadedness -- after years of an almost soap opera-like atmosphere in Ukrainian politics -- that seems to inspire hope in Ukraine.

"Poroshenko is a rational man and a realist who prefers negotiations to hostilities," said analyst Vadim Karasyov. "Poroshenko is an industrialist; he's not a man of ideology."

Once elected, Karasyov says, he will be talking to the Kremlin and to Ukraine's richest men, Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoisky, in an effort to defuse the tensions and put an end to violence in the east.

Unlike many other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations, but instead was seen to have built his chocolate empire brick by brick. His kingdom is not the coal mines with underpaid workers and poor safety standards, but Willy Wonka-like chocolate stores and candies on sale in every kiosk across the country. As a result, Poroshenko is largely perceived as the "good tycoon."

Poroshenko, estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $1.6 billion, wasn't a leader of the massive protests that precipitated President Yanukovych's ouster in February. Still he was the first of Ukraine's tycoons to publicly support the demonstrations and has remained a prominent figure since then, as Ukraine has helplessly watched Crimea split off and join Russia, followed by pro-Russia insurgents seizing government buildings in the east and declaring independence.

Some see Poroshenko as a protean political survivor, others as an opportunist without loyalty to anyone but himself.

Poroshenko, who comes from the south of Ukraine, evenly divided between Ukrainian and Russian speakers, began his career in politics in 1998 as a lawmaker in a Russian-friendly party. In 2001, he was one of the founders of the Party of Regions, the political power behind Yanukovych.

Yet he soon parted ways with that party to throw his support behind the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Yanukovych's arch-rival Viktor Yushchenko to power. He served as Yushchenko's head of the national security council, but stepped down within months amid allegations of corruption and after consistent feuding with Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister.

Tymoshenko, who lost the last presidential election to Yanukovych, is Poroshenko's closest challenger in Sunday's vote, attracting about 6 percent support.

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