KIEV: Gone is the trademark peasant-style hair braid, though the familiar voice and the assured, rapid-fire delivery tell you Yulia Tymoshenko is back as a political force in Ukraine. But instead of the fiery Tymoshenko, it is Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old billionaire known as the ‘Chocolate King’ who is now the front-runner in the May 25 presidential election. Ukraine’s new leadership hopes the vote will unite a divided country amid growing pressure from Russia, which is hostile to its political changes.
Poroshenko, whose chain of confectionery shops puts him in Ukraine’s top 10 rich list, received a huge boost at the weekend when popular boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko pulled out of the race and endorsed him for the presidency.
Even before Klitschko bowed out Saturday, Poroshenko, a beefy man with a thick shock of grey hair, was well ahead in ratings. As he held 25 percent, Klitschko had 9 percent and Tymoshenko trailed with 8.3 percent.
The development appeared to eclipse Tymoshenko’s hopes of profiting from her persecution under the ousted Viktor Yanukovich, including two-and-a-half years under prison guard, to win the presidency – a post she has long coveted.
The flamboyant former prime minister, who was also the heroine of a previous uprising 10 years ago called the ‘Orange Revolution,’ declared her bid for the presidency last week, saying she too saw herself as the candidate who represented “Ukrainian unity.”
Poroshenko is an experienced politician, having held a variety of portfolios including that of economy minister, under pro-Western and Moscow-backed administrations.
But late last year he quickly spotted the changing mood in the country as protests began against Yanukovich’s retreat from European integration, and threw his weight behind the pro-Europe ‘Euromaidan’ movement that forced Yanukovich to flee.
The oligarch, estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.3 billion, is the owner of Roshen, a Ukrainian chocolate manufacturer and one of the world’s top 20 confectionery firms.
His retail businesses in Russian have been targeted as Moscow applies pressure to counter Ukraine’s drive toward the West.
Russian riot police last week took control of a Roshen factory in the city of Lipetsk as part of an investigation into the company’s affairs, the Ukrainian government said.
When the ‘Euromaidan’ revolt gathered pace, he was the only oligarch to back the protesters, appearing with opposition leaders on Independence Square, or the Maidan, the launchpad of the uprising.
Crucially, he devoted his 5th Channel TV station to coverage of the protests, turning it into a conduit for interviews and opinions that state-owned channels shunned.
As the crisis grew in Crimea, he further boosted his popularity by flying to the peninsula in a personal initiative to try to speak to pro-Russian forces as they took control. He met a hostile reception, however, and flew back to Kiev the same day.
Poroshenko’s past political experience and huge range of business contacts should help him – if he secures the presidency – to bridge the east-west divide in the country and keep other powerful oligarchs onside.
Though Poroshenko now has the clearest chance of securing the presidency, commentators warn of the unpredictable mood in the country following the trauma of the past four months, in which 100 people died violently on the streets of Kiev, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the new leaders did not appeared to foresee.
“Poroshenko must be very careful. At the moment, the national mood is in his favor and the most important thing for him is not to do anything that could negatively influence public opinion,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think tank.
Announcing his decision to run for president in his base of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, Poroshenko voiced defiance over the Russian takeover of Crimea and called for the creation of an effective, modern armed forces.
“The Ukrainian army will not give up an inch of Ukrainian land,” he declared.
Poroshenko made a direct appeal to Tymoshenko to drop her challenge for the presidency and unite behind him – or to at least run a contest that does not fracture the political unity of the country.
“Yulia Vladimirovna will not be our political opponent. ... We would regard it highly if Yulia Vladimirovna supported our initiative today,” Poroshenko said.
So which way will she jump?
Tymoshenko’s years in prison under Yanukovich and the almost iconic status she enjoys among followers in west and central Ukraine seemed initially to guarantee her political comeback.
She received a muted response from the Maidan when she was brought there in a wheelchair shortly after her release from detention in February, however.
She was the victim of a swing against her and other established figures of a discredited Ukrainian political class.
Many remember her as the ‘gas princess’ of the 1990s when, long before becoming prime minister, she made a fortune as a gas intermediary during the government of Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko himself was convicted and jailed in the United States in 2006 for money laundering and other offenses.
Tymoshenko, a fiery speaker who is widely perceived as being divisive and often blatantly populist, is clearly trying to adapt her style to meet an electorate that has become disenchanted with the old political class.
Meanwhile, she appears to be working hard to change her public image. Once famous for her elegant couture, she cuts a more sober figure now, wearing darker clothes and eschewing her trademark hair braid in favor of a straighter, more severe hair style.
She is also an old adversary of Poroshenko from her time as prime minister. In 2005, she criticized Poroshenko, who was then secretary of the National Defence and Security Council, alleging that he was involved in corruption. The scandal was ended only when the then President Viktor Yushchenko sacked them both.