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Poroshenko: from chocolate baron to Ukraine president

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Petro Poroshenko, who will be sworn in as president of Ukraine on Saturday, is a billionaire chocolate baron whose revolutionary zeal turned him into a political comet.

The pro-Western tycoon won an outright victory in a presidential election late last month with 54.7 percent of the votes -- a powerful mandate no one would have predicted just a year ago.

He needs the mandate, as he assumes the reins of his country at a dramatic point in history when it finds itself at the centre of the worst crisis between East and West in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The crisis has centred around Russia's annexation of the Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, as well as an uprising by pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country.

- 'The dialogue has begun' -

This pits Poroshenko against Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Friday on the eve of the inauguration ceremony, the two met briefly as they both attended D-Day commemorations in northern France.

"The dialogue has begun, and that's a good thing," Poroshenko told Ukrainian television afterwards.

He said that a Russian envoy would travel to Ukraine on Sunday, adding there was a "good chance" of success.

Success is indeed needed if he is to bring about the profound change he had promised for the country that he will now lead.

"Soon we will end the war. Soon we will stamp out corruption. Soon we will begin European integration and establish democracy," he said last month.

Opimistic? Perhaps. But he is a man can make tings happen, as his career proves, whether in business or in politics.

- Ukraine's Willy Wonka -

The tall, slightly greying tycoon is one of the country's 10 richest men with a fortune estimated at around $1.6 billion (1.2 billion euros) by Forbes magazine, which described him as Ukraine's Willy Wonka.

A shrewd politician who has flip-flopped between governments for more than a decade, Poroshenko was the only Ukrainian oligarch to openly back the pro-European protest movement that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, under whom he served briefly as economics minister.

He was also the only politician to fly to Crimea in a bid to negotiate with pro-Russian troops who seized parliament after Yanukovych fell, but he was angrily chased off by demonstrators.

While ready to talk with Putin, he has insisted two issues are not negotiable -- Ukraine's pro-Europe direction and Crimea, which he insisted "is and will remain Ukrainian".

- Capable pair of hands -

Having held several cabinet portfolios and built strong links across the business community, he is seen by many as an experienced and capable pair of hands to stem an economy in freefall and unite the country.

Analysts say he is more palatable to the electorate than his nearest rival in last month's election, Ukraine's "iron lady" Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was jailed for abuse of power by the ousted regime, and other less experienced politicians.

Unlike most of Ukraine's influence-wielding oligarchs who made a killing swallowing up state assets in the chaotic years that followed the Soviet Union's fall, Poroshenko's wealth is self-made.

He started out selling cocoa beans, buying up several confectionary plants which he later united into Eastern European candy giant Roshen, which produces 450,000 tonnes of sweets a year, according to its website.

He also owns companies that make cars and buses, a shipyard and opposition television network Kanal 5 which broadcast live from Independence Square at the height of the revolution which left some 100 people dead.

Poroshenko's fortune has however taken a hit from the current political crisis and the bitter standoff with Russia, a key market.

One of the first difficulties came last year. As Ukraine neared the signing of an EU pact fervently supported by Poroshenko, Russia banned chocolate imports from his Roshen factory.

- Switching sides -

The married father of four was born in the small southwestern town of Bolgrad and studied economics at Kiev State University.

He entered the turbulent world of Ukrainian politics in 1998 as a lawmaker for a grouping loyal to then-president Leonid Kuchma. In 2000, the oligarch was one of the founders of Yanukovych's Regions Party.

But in 2002, he changed sides and joined forces with his close friend Viktor Yushchenko, who later became a hero of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and president of Ukraine.

Poroshenko played a major role in the revolution which erupted when Yanukovych won the presidency in a poll widely viewed as rigged.

Under Yushchenko, Poroshenko was foreign minister and president of the central bank.

He had a famous falling out with Tymoshenko, which resulted in both of them being fired by Yushchenko. He was accused of abuse of power over the evaluation of a state metals firm, but the investigation was dropped.

And in another switch, he was appointed as economics minister by Yanukovych in 2012. Later that year he was elected to parliament as an independent candidate and had hinted at running for mayor of Kiev before the current crisis.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140607/poroshenko-chocolate-baron-ukraine-president