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Ukraine's Chocolate King Is Presidential Front-Runner


The man expected to win tomorrow's election is known as the Chocolate King of Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko made his billions from his business holdings that include factories that make extremely popular candies. He also owns a television station, and its broadcast support of the protests on Kiev's Maidan square that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych. Yet, at one point, Mr. Poroshenko himself served in the Yanukovych government. For some insight into Ukraine's frontrunner, we called Carnegie Endowment scholar, Balazs Jarabik, in Kiev. He explained why Mr. Poroshenko is considered an oligarch.

BALAS JARABIK: You know, oligarchs are the people who are making money on contracts with the government and businesses where they have monopolies. And they're able to create those monopolies so basically stifling competition. Petro Poroshenko was able to build a chocolate factory - or a chocolate monopoly, if you like. Not only in Ukraine - but it's very interesting that he's making most of his money in the former Soviet Union market, including Russia. His biggest factory, actually, is in Russia. So, you know, he's well-versed in the former Soviet Union business and political circles just by his holdings.

SIMON: It sounds like he would have a great personal incentive to keep good relations with Russia.

JARABIK: Well, he's a very outspoken and always been. I mean, he was the oligarch who funded the Orange Revolution. Which is, you know, basically the Ukrainians - the Orange Revolution - they realized that they are not Russians, and they are Ukrainians. So he's - among the oligarchs, he's the most pro-Western oriented. At the same time, you know, also among the oligarchs, he has the biggest holding in Russia. So that's - that's going to be an interesting - an important dimension, I believe Because he could be the man who can make an agreement or strike a deal both between the European Union and Russia. Now, how he's going to do that is a different question, and I think it's not going to be that easy.

SIMON: Have you had the chocolate?

JARABIK: Oh, the chocolate is good actually, decent quality, which, you know, when - when we're speaking about quality that's, you know, European standard, if you like.

SIMON: Does he have good relations with President Putin? Do we know anything about that?

JARABIK: I don't think there is any personal relationship here. The issue is simply that, you know, like, he needs to take into the Russian considerations, and I think he will be willing to do that. And I think President Putin is also looking for someone who can make a deal.

The most important question for the Russians is the gas. How, between Ukraine and Russia, can make the gas deal. Ukraine is the biggest consumer of Russian gas, and Russia does not want to lose this market. Now, President Putin needs someone who can sign a decent gas deal. Ukraine needs someone who can make and strike a good gas deal with Russia. And, just a reminder that, you know, like, Yulia Tymoshenko was sitting in the jail exactly for the gas deal that she signed as the Prime Minister of Ukraine, back in 2009 with President Putin. So this is a very sensitive issue.

SIMON: Speaking of the former Prime Minister, Tymoshenko, is she a factor in this election?

JARABIK: Petro Poroshenko's rating is very high. It's, it's - I just see the fresh poll result, and it's showing 44, 45 percent for him. And Yulia Tymoshenko is trailing the second with 10 percent, which is obviously a huge difference. But it's not going to be enough for this first round. Now, the issue is not only that there's going to be a second round. The issue - the other issue is, like, whether Yulia Tymoshenko is going to accept the results. Now, if you're going back through history, what we've seen is actually a big conflict between Petro Poroshenko, who is the head of the National Security Council after the Orange Revolution, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the Prime Minister. And we may have a déjà vu again, after these elections.

SIMON: Why is the man known as the Chocolate King so - apparently, so popular with a lot of the people who say they were out to overthrow oligarchs?

JARABIK: They're voting for him for various reasons. A, he was a very big Maidan supporter. He was clearly pushing the opposition to take a very pro-European and pro-Western stand. He was helping with those victims during the fights. He was basically becoming one of the faces of Maidan. And that's one of the reasons why people are actually voting for him. The second reason is because he is an oligarch where, actually, now they can turn to.

You know, when you have the central government break down, the people need some kind of stability. And that's not going to be civil society. It needs to be something bigger than that. And the oligarchs are coming, very interestingly, back in the picture by that. The question is not whether Poroshenko is going to win and why he's going to win - what he's going to do with his mandate. If he understands that he needs to bring in a new generation of Ukrainians and do the reform, I think Ukraine is going to be in a very good place.

SIMON: Balazs Jarabik is a scholar and analyst we reached from Kiev. Thanks very much for being with us.

JARABIK: Thanks, really, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.