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The Chocolate King and the Gas Princess

Posted on Apr 15, 2014

By Ivo Mijnssen

  Runner-up: Yulia Tymoshenko, pictured here in 2007, trails Petro Poroshenko in the polls. Shutterstock

In the midst of unrest in Eastern Ukraine and the threat of a new Russian intervention, the transitional government in Kiev is preparing for the election of a new president on May 25. Although the country’s future remains shrouded in mist, the fog is at least lifting over the field of contestants. As a result of the revolution on Kiev’s Maidan Square, the Ukrainian parliament toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in a controversial decision. The revolution did not, however, remove the old elites. Instead, the majority of Ukrainian deputies simply abandoned Yanukovych when his position became untenable after the death of 76 people, mostly demonstrators, on Feb. 18-20. The struggle for quick stabilization in the face of Russian intervention led to even stronger reliance on established political figures. Not surprisingly, there are many familiar faces among the presidential hopefuls.

A total of 24 candidates submitted their applications to Ukraine’s central electoral body in late March. They represent pro-Western, leftist, liberal, nationalist, pro-Russian and even fascist positions, but only a handful can expect to stand a chance. Although the details of their popular support remain rather spotty, a recent poll by four Ukrainian research institutions has shed at least some light on the question.

The survey, conducted among 6,200 voters across the country, found that 84 percent of them intend to go to their polling place. Of this electorate, one-fifth is as of yet undecided for whom they will vote. One of the key findings is that extremist parties enjoy only marginal support. Candidates of the two neo-fascist parties, Right Sector and Svoboda, who have done much to discredit the revolution in Maidan in the eyes of the Russian and Western audience, poll at less than 2 percent.

The clear leader is Ukrainian businessman and “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko, with the support of 25 percent of those surveyed. Since the poll was conducted at the end of March, Poroshenko has consolidated his position. Maidan protest leader and heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko withdrew his own presidential ambitions to endorse Poroshenko. Klitschko, head of the new political formation UDAR, which means both “strike” and Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform in Ukrainian, enjoys significant popularity among the progressive urban electorate hoping for sweeping change in Ukrainian politics. He thus came in second place in the poll, immediately behind Poroshenko.

Klitschko, whom many observers and most famously U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (in a leaked phone conversation) consider politically inexperienced, is rumored to have made a deal with Poroshenko for the post of Kiev mayor, should he become president. Moreover, the duo enjoys the support of Western donors, most prominently British Prime Minister David Cameron, and one of the most powerful Ukrainian oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash. Firtash fled to Vienna after the Ukrainian revolution because of his close ties to both Russian politicians and Yanukovych. Currently released on a 125 million euro ($173 million) bail after his arrest on corruption charges, Firtash appears to be attempting to reconsolidate his political influence.

Poroshenko is himself one of Ukraine’s richest men. His personal fortune is estimated at $1.6 billion. He owns the candy brand Roshen, which is extremely popular in the post-Soviet space. He was one of the first Ukrainian oligarchs to support the protests on Maidan publicly and financially and draws much of his current popularity from taking an unsuccessful but courageous stand against a mob of pro-Russian protesters in the Crimean city of Simferopol shortly before the peninsula’s annexation.

Poroshenko runs on a pro-Western, pro-reform platform, promising to lead Ukraine into the European Union and implement the painful reforms—an increase in subsidized gas prices and an end to state support for unprofitable businesses—that Western donors demanded as a condition for their $27 billion aid package in March. Poroshenko also promised to resolutely oppose any Russian attempts to annex other parts of the country, saying, “If the aggression continues against the rest of the country, the Ukrainian army will open fire.”

Moscow has already enacted political sanctions against entrepreneur Poroshenko, who does 40 percent of his business in Russia. Claiming that his chocolate does not conform to Russian sanitary standards, officials closed two of his factories. Poroshenko’s connections to Russia remain nonetheless close, as his daughter-in-law is Russian. He was also one of the founders of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and a minister in the governments of both Viktors—Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Poroshenko is thus clearly an “insider,” but also a politician who has managed to remain surprisingly popular in spite of his many volte-faces. As president, he is likely to continue the precarious balancing act between Russia and the European Union that his predecessors engaged in as well.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the current runner-up, polling at 8.2 percent, is also a familiar face. The figurehead of Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” was recently released after she spent more than two years in prison. She is also running on an anti-Russian platform, famously stating her intention to “shoot Putin in the head” after the Russian annexation of Crimea. She presents herself as an advocate of Ukraine’s urban middle class and prisoners’ rights, a fighter for reforms and an opponent of corruption.


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