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Ukraine's 'Chocolate King' aims for top job

By Richard Allen Greene and Erin McLaughlin, CNN
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Poroshenko made his wealth in the candy business
  • He leads the field of 20 candidates in Sunday's election
  • The "Chocolate King" wants closer ties with Europe

Chernihiv, Ukraine (CNN) -- Petro Poroshenko is already the "Chocolate King" of Ukraine, but he has his sights set higher: He wants to be president.

He's a billionaire thanks to the candy company he started nearly 20 years ago, but, asked recently if it's an advantage to be an oligarch when running for president, Poroshenko sidestepped the question with a hint of a smile on his lips and a hint of steel in his eyes.

"I don't know," he said in English. "You should ask an oligarch about that."

Poroshenko, 48, isn't Ukraine's wealthiest man; his $1.3 billion fortune makes him seventh, according to Forbes magazine's list of the world's billionaires.

Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko hands out autographs on the campaign trail in central Ukraine in the run-up to the election on May 25.
Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko hands out autographs on the campaign trail in central Ukraine in the run-up to the election on May 25.

But his wealth includes experience as well as money. He's a former foreign minister and former chairman of Ukraine's national security and defense council, and now a member of parliament, focusing on European integration.

Given the opinion polls ahead of Sunday's election, political analyst Igor Popov has no doubt that Poroshenko will be elected president. He leads by a wide margin over his nearest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in a field of more than 20 candidates.

But if Poroshenko does win, he'll be inheriting a tough job.

His country has been wracked by months of violence, with Moscow laying claim to Crimea and separatists declaring independence in several eastern regions of the country bordering Russia.

That's the very reason Poroshenko says it's so important to have a presidential election now, when the country has an interim president following the flight to Russia of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year.

"We need a legitimate, strong, powerful commander-in-chief of our armed forces. We need a legitimate president who can open dialogue, direct dialogue with all our partners," Poroshenko said ahead of a campaign rally in this city about a two-hour drive north of the capital Kiev, in central Ukraine.

Rally in the rain

Hundreds of people stood out in the rain in the city's main square for a long speech by Poroshenko during the event, which ended with candidate and crowd singing Ukraine's national anthem and a pro-Ukrainian pop song worthy of the kitschy Eurovison song contest.

Polls suggest Ukraine presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko may have enough support to win outright in the first round of elections on Sunday, May 25.
Polls suggest Ukraine presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko may have enough support to win outright in the first round of elections on Sunday, May 25.

Lights of yellow and blue, the colors of Ukraine's national flag, played over the crowd as they sang. When it was over, Poroshenko worked the crowd, handing out autographed cards with his face on them, aides continually replenishing his supply.

When the campaign rally was over, he spoke exclusively to CNN.

"My first step immediately after the election would be a visit, not to Brussels, not to Moscow and not even to Washington. My first visit would be to Donetsk," he said, referring to one of the main separatist regions in the east, an area now styling itself the independent Donetsk People's Republic.

The purpose of the trip would not be to negotiate with the self-styled separatist leaders, he said, denying that they truly represented the people.

"If it is a terrorist, they are not representing the people. They have just 500 people with guns," he said, working a small wooden cross on rosary beads between his fingers throughout the interview.

But, he said, he was more than willing to talk to anyone elected by the people, and he has no objection to more local self-control.

People across Ukraine have "the right to speak any language they want. The right to elect the leaders they want. The right for the decentralization of power," he said.

He was firm on his two main goals.

"European integration -- no compromise," he declared. "Crimea and eastern Ukraine, we are fighting for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of my country. No compromise."

Tough enough?

The man likely to be Ukraine\'s next president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, vows not to talk to \
The man likely to be Ukraine's next president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, vows not to talk to "terrorists" and "bandits" in the east of the divided country

But challenged on whether he could work with Vladimir Putin, he dodged the question, refusing even to mention Russia's president by name.

Instead, he talked about working with major European powers.

And pressed again specifically on Russia and Putin, he fell back on the format of ongoing round table discussions with Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union.

Poroshenko argues that his country has earned the right to join the EU.

"Ukraine has already passed a very important exam in February, March, April of this year. More than 100 Ukrainians gave their lives in fighting for democracy," he said.

While he said he personally would like Ukraine to join NATO, he recognizes that it's not possible at the moment.

"At present we have a war situation. NATO unfortunately will not accept Ukraine," he said.

The chocolate king has vowed to sell the candy business that made his fortune if he is elected president, but he won't give up his television channel.

He gave two reasons for holding onto Channel Five.

"Because this channel two times saved the country, and, reason number two, because the channel is not for sale," he said.

Hollywood ending

It's possible Poroshenko will win outright in the first round by getting more than 50% of the vote. If he fails to cross that hurdle, he'll face the runner-up in a run-off election.

Some Ukrainians are hoping the race will be over on Sunday.

One woman wrapped in the Ukrainian flag at the Poroshenko campaign rally said she was planning to vote for him because he's the leading candidate and she wants the race settled as soon as possible.

In fact, there is little difference in policy between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, allies a decade ago in the Orange Revolution who have since become rivals.

Igor Popov, the political analyst, said whoever wins the election will disappoint the Ukrainian people.

"The Ukrainian people are looking at all these crises, dreaming that it's a Hollywood movie and when the movie finishes we will see a happy ending," he said. "Now the Ukrainian people are dreaming that the next day after presidential elections, war will stop and the currency rate will come back to normal and all the problems will be solved."

That's not going to happen.

"Nobody could solve all the Ukrainian problems soon and fast, but maybe when we compare Mr. Poroshenko to other politicians, he has the biggest chance to reunite the country," Popov added.

Poroshenko himself does not lack confidence.

At one point during his interview with CNN, he referred to European integration as a goal for "his first term."

And later he interrupted a question about what he would do if he wins with a correction: "When I win."

READ: Russian troops still at Ukrainian border despite withdrawal pledge, NATO says

READ: Who's in charge here? In one eastern Ukrainian city, answer isn't clear

READ: Polls close in eastern Ukraine amid allegations of fraud and double-voting

Journalists Lena Kashkarova, Victoria Butenko and Azad Safanov contributed to this report.

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