Petro Poroshenko, a post-Soviet "self-made man" facing the new Ukraine

Billionaire, politician with changing allegiances, Petro Poroshenko is the archetype of a ruling class born of the dismantling of the USSR. What he highlights as an experience of statesman essential for the Europeanization of Ukraine ...


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Petro Poroshenko among his supporters between the two towers, April 14, 2019. REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko

Billionaire, politician with changing allegiances, Petro Poroshenko is the archetype of a ruling class born of the dismantling of the USSR. What he highlights as an experience of statesman essential for the Europeanization of Ukraine and against the aggression of Russia today faces the rejection of a large part of the public opinion .

From our correspondent in Kiev,

In the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, on April 21, Ukrainians are asked to choose between Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin. In any case, this is the message that the posters of the outgoing president send back to the voters. Petro Poroshenko claims to be a Westernized and reformist statesman and a leader of armies whose principles and patience must lead the people to victory. A political maneuver between two towers, the posture is above all the latest transformation of Petro Poroshenko, formerly known as the "chocolate king" of Ukraine.

Businessman to politician

Born in 1965, it is a pure product of the Soviet system. Together with his Communist Party leader and factory manager, he spent part of his childhood in Bender, a city in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, now in the unrecognized secessionist state of Transdniestria. He completed his military service in Kazakhstan before completing his studies in economics and international relations. He marries Maryna Perevedentseva in 1984, with whom he will have 4 children. At the fall of the USSR, he and his father launched several industrial projects, especially in confectionery and car manufacturing.

If the family is affected by the death of Petro's brother, Mikhaylo, in a car accident in 1997, business flourishes in the chaos of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, it is already a substantial empire, and Petro Poroshenko follows the movement of other post-Soviet businessmen by embarking on politics. First associated with the authoritarian president Leonid Kuchma , he co-founded in 2001 the Party of Regions, the future majority of the corrupt Viktor Yanukovych .

Petro Poroshenko made a 90-degree turn in 2004 by supporting the "Orange Revolution" and engaging in the reform team of President Viktor Yushchenko. It is quickly sidelined because of political dissent. Follows a sort of crossing of the political desert. Petro Poroshenko is considered a second-rate politician, used twice as a minister in oligarchic governments. At the same time, his economic empire is diversifying into banking, real estate and the media. In 2012, it weighs $ 1 billion, according to Forbes magazine. In the summer of 2013, he is the main victim of the so-called "chocolate war" trade dispute between Ukraine and Russia.

In the eyes of the Ukrainians, Petro Poroshenko is therefore part of the oligarchic system that has governed Ukraine since independence. His flexible allegiances are proof of the "cronyism" that reigns in the political elite. In an interview in September 2013, he justified his career as a guarantee of " the experience he puts at the service of his country ". This is how he won the presidency in the first round in 2014 , in the wave of the EuroMaidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in the East. It carries the hopes of modernization of the economy and reform of the state caused by the revolution. His constituents believe that this billionaire will be less tempted by corruption than his predecessors. Anglophone, he is a practical interlocutor for Western partners of Ukraine, to face the aggression of Russia.

Diabetic and nocturnal animal ...

Hope that goes out one by one, when it turns out that Petro Poroshenko does not fight the oligarchic system. In 2015, investigative journalists observe the ballet of oligarchs of all kinds at the presidential administration, late into the night. Despite his diabetes, Petro Poroshenko is known as a workaholic, and a nocturnal animal. These encounters in the darkness change the perception of Ukrainians. The behavior of his political party in the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) is far from exemplary in terms of reforms. At best, say the representatives of civil society, Petro Poroshenko would seek to manage the oligarchy instead of fighting it. At worst, he benefits, he and his relatives.

Suspicions confirmed in 2016, when he appears in the international survey of "Panama Papers". He is accused of tax evasion. Despite his promise to sell the companies of his economic empire to avoid conflicts of interest, he sells only a few, late. His tax returns attest to an increase in his fortune, at a time of serious economic crisis . The luxury of his vast residence south of Kiev, whose park is home to a private church, is no scandal: after all, he is a billionaire. On the other hand, the discovery of an undeclared villa in Marbella, on the south-Spanish coast, is strongly reproached.

To critics, as to the demands of the society of an irreproachable president, Petro Poroshenko's team opposes a systematic and contemptuous denial. The Presidency has been putting forward significant progress since 2014, such as the stabilization of public finances, the reform of decentralization, and the liberalization of the Schengen visa regime for Ukrainian citizens. The head of state continues to present himself as a champion of the fight against corruption, and seeks refuge in the role of chief of armies of a country at war. According to several of his close associates, Petro Poroshenko was indeed traumatized by the military escalation in the East, and the infinite vision of the coffins of soldiers. More than 13,000 people lost their lives in the war, according to the UN. He multiplies the movements on the front and the apparitions in uniform, and denounces the Russian aggression to each of his public interventions.

It is obviously in the logical continuation of the break with Russia that this very practicing Orthodox Christian abandons the Moscow Patriarchate to which he was affiliated. He works for the establishment of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent of Moscow, recognized at the end of 2018. No doubt because he saw it as a personal journey, he put his re-election on this achievement, and on his triptych " Army ! Faith ! Language ! A conservative slogan that mobilizes only part of the electorate. Petro Poroshenko must face the rejection of much of the opinion. In addition to nepotism and complicity in corruption cases, he is accused of authoritarian drift.

Confident for a second term

In a video sequence, we see him in the company of men of the Church, challenged by a citizen on the issue of the fight against corruption. The head of state is indignant: " Go to the Church, because obviously you do not have faith ! And to denigrate his interlocutor as a " Moscow provocateur ", for the simple reason that the man expresses himself in Russian. The video becomes viral. A few weeks later, a journalist investigation involves relatives of the head of state in a smuggling case in the defense sector. Petro Poroshenko, who had sworn to "cut off the hands" of those who dared to get rich on the back of the army, does not get over it.

King of chocolate, survivor of the political disturbances of a Ukraine under construction, champion of the revolutionaries of 2014, icon of the country's unity against the Russian aggression, Petro Poroshenko embodies the success of a "self-made man" post-Soviet. The man has always shown a foolproof confidence. Even today, he assures anyone who wants to hear that he " will win a second term ". The outgoing president, however, seems to be in disarray in a changing Ukraine.

This is evidenced by the lack of enthusiasm for the ill-considered promises he has multiplied in the interstage, and the irresistible wave of Ukrainian "dégagisme", on which comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is surfing. The latter enjoys half the votes of soldiers mobilized on the front line. That is a disavowal screaming of the current chief of the army. Petro Poroshenko's career is remarkable in many ways. The legacy of his presidency, however, remains to be written once the ballots are counted.

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ref: rfi