President-elect Petro Poroshenko, pictured at a rally on May 18, will step in as Ukraine's new leader after winning Sunday's election.
KIEV, Ukraine — "Acting from behind the scenes he directed his money to the heart of the protests: to its peaceful, and then to its bloodiest moments. How did a man with hidden Jewish roots hope to make a deal with the extreme right? It was only when billionaire Poroshenko made a very special announcement it all became clear: He wants to become President!"
Russian propaganda is well-known for its creative attitude to truth, and the above intro to a new documentary, “Chocolate Bunny,” on Russia’s NTV is a classic of the genre. It associates Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko with every imaginable slur in the book of Russian Black PR: He’s both Jewish and working with neo-Nazis; an oligarch and in cahoots with a Western conspiracy.
And the most important message — not stated outright but clearly hinted at and reinforced with video — is that Poroshenko secretly funded the sniper attacks that killed protesters in Kiev in February and pinned it on the now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, thus promoting himself to power.
Russian state TV propaganda tells us more about the psychology of the Russian audience — and those in east Ukraine who watch Russian TV — than reality. But what is the true story of the man set to lead Ukraine through its chaotic and often bloody post-revolutionary period?
Who is Poroshenko?
Poroshenko is one of Ukraine’s richest men, with a fortune estimated to be in the region of $1.3 billion.Poroshenko is one of Ukraine’s richest men, with a fortune estimated to be in the region of $1.3 billion. But if most Ukrainian oligarchs made their money in the murky gas and metals business, Poroshenko’s rise to success was thanks to the more edifying chocolate market.
After an elite education in International Relations, he moved into the cutthroat business of early 1990s Ukraine, soon having enough money and contacts to privatize several Soviet chocolate manufacturers to create ‘Roshen’ (based on the middle of his name- poROSHENko). He produces remarkably popular, super-sweet candy, including the Ukrainian version of Ferrero Rocher.
But while some might find it depressing to see an oligarch leading the country after a revolution inspired by fighting corruption, Poroshenko promotes himself as a slightly different type of post-Soviet super-rich, someone who developed a solid business rather than merely asset stripping: Workers at his factories earn above the Ukrainian average.
Poroshenko’s best calling card is Vinnitsa, the town where he grew up, and which has several Roshen factories. Unlike many small Ukrainian towns, Vinnitsa is modern and clean. The buses run on time, and you can even phone the mayor on a special hotline if some local service has broken down.
To cap it all off, Poroshenko has funded the biggest water dancing show in Europe, with fountains embedded in the river shooting hundreds of feet into the air to a music and laser show. It’s meant to be one of the top 10 water shows in the world. The whole of Ukraine can be like Vinnitsa is an underlying message in Poroshenko’s campaign, whose slogan is "Live in a New Way."
Poroshenko has also shown that he’s prepared to sacrifice his business interests for higher political aims. Forty percent of his chocolate sales go to Russia, and he's losing parts of his profits as tensions between Moscow and Kiev escalate. News outlets have reported that he has had more than $50 million seized in his Russian accounts.
A Roshen factory in Russia has been raided. To put pressure on Kiev, the Kremlin banned imports of his chocolates to Russia under the trumped-up allegation they contained carcinogenic ingredients (in one of its more surreal allegations, the NTV documentary seized on the fact Poroshenko doesn’t eat his own chocolates — he is diabetic — to show he’s ready to poison people for profit).
But while Poroshenko has managed to spin his business record to electoral advantage, he struggles more with the fact he has served under every president in Ukraine, with posts ranging from foreign minister to head of the Security Council. He was even, briefly, a minister under the now-deposed and reviled Yanukovych.
Poroshenko backers stress the positive aspect of this: He is a pragmatist who is good at doing deals, thus the right man to negotiate with Russia, the West and breakaway eastern regions.
But it was Poroshenko’s presence on the revolutionary Maidan where he was up on stage without ever dirtying his hands in hopeless negotiations with the previous government, which most helps his image as someone who understands the demand to "live in a new way."
He was there; he knows what the people want.He was there; he knows what the people want.
And it’s this idea that, despite his past, Poroshenko understands the zeitgeist that is the most important element of his pitch. Throughout his campaign, he has avoided the messianic populism that dominated Ukrainian politics over the last decade, so associated with his rival Yulia Tymoshenko, and which Ukrainians are so sick of.
Instead he presents himself as a sensible, practical man who understands the post-revolutionary demand for honesty and transparency. Poroshenko promises that one of his priorities will be to investigate who was responsible for the sniper shootings in February as there’s a growing sense the police and army are covering for their own people, with the politicians afraid to take them on.
It’s a tough call for Poroshenko: Let the situation fester and create more space for discontent (and Russian propaganda which alleges you were behind the killings yourself), or attack your own security services when huge parts of the police and army are already defecting to the side of separatists.
But while Poroshenko talks about transparency, some of his actual behavior is disconcerting.But while Poroshenko talks about transparency, some of his actual behavior is disconcerting. In the run up to the election, Poroshenko travelled to a secret meeting in Vienna to meet with one of the more reviled Ukrainian oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash, who is close to Moscow and is under a money-laundering investigation in the U.S.
Poroshenko struck some sort of deal to get Fyrtash’s support — and when this was leaked the eclectic mix of Ukrainians who made the revolution (from the middle class to radicals and idealistic students) were appalled. This was very much the old way of doing things.
Many in Kiev are already talking about the next revolution, which will finally bring down the vestiges of the post-Soviet system and pull Ukraine away from Moscow influence. And if he’s not careful next time, Poroshenko will be on the receiving end — though that might mean he’ll be a hero on Russian channels.
Peter Pomerantsev is a London-based writer and television producer.