Profile of Ukraine’s president.
When he became president of Ukraine in May, Petro Poroshenko swept away the notion of Ukraine as an inherently divided state, by winning in every region. On 27 June, he committed Ukraine to “modernisation” along European Union lines, completing the signing of its association agreement and announcing that the country hopes to join the EU. The 48-year-old political veteran, months of street protests and Russia’s annexation of Crimea also seem to have transformed domestic politics. For one thing, the Party of Regions, the power-base of former president Viktor Yanukovych, has collapsed.
But Poroshenko now needs to push through reforms swiftly, including constitutional changes, or else himself face protests on Kiev’s Maidan. The challenge is made harder by lingering perceptions of him: as an oligarch, and therefore part of Ukraine’s problems, and as one of the people who buried the hopes raised by the Orange Revolution of 2004-05. But, above all and most urgently, he must prevent Russia and pro-Russian separatists from transforming eastern Ukraine into another zone of semi-frozen conflict on Russia’s border.
Poroshenko knows the effects of ‘frozen conflicts’ personally. In 1992, fighting in Transdnistria forced his parents to leave Bender, a small Moldovan town. By then, he was in his final years at the diplomats’ school at Kiev’s State University – a school seen as a playground of the Soviet nomenklatura. His father, an agricultural engineer, was certainly not a member of the Soviet elite. Petro, however, had ambition, strong grades, as well as – some reports say – a feisty character. A younger contemporary recalls Poroshenko being the student others would point out, for his ability at judo and in the classroom, and for his political engagement.
During years at university interrupted by military conscription, Poroshenko swiftly established his abiding personal ties. He married a student doctor in his second year, started a family (he has four children) and met a future business partner. Still at university, latterly as an academic assistant, he seized opportunities thrown up by the perestroika era, first registering as a consultant. He soon started finding deals. A diabetic himself, he spotted a gap in the sweets market and started importing cocoa beans. He took on two more partners; their interests expanded the portfolio of Poroshenko’s holding to include van- and ship-building.
By 1998, when he entered politics, his business was booming and internally stable; power- and money-sharing arrangements have continued to keep the partners an effective team. A fortune had been created without scandal. By 2013, his main business and “fifth child” – the chocolate-maker Roshen – was one of the 20 largest sweet-makers in the world, providing much of his $1.6 billion (€1.2bn) fortune.
In parliament, he was swiftly courted by President Leonid Kuchma, who suggested that the 32-year-old, who had chosen the city of Vinnitsya as his business and political base, should govern the Vinnitsya region. Poroshenko refused. Governors have too little power, he said. But in parliament he struggled to find a niche. He entered as a delegate for the SDPU(o) – Social Democrats by name, full of businessmen in composition – but soon created his own party, Solidarity, which in late 2000 became a building block of the Party of Regions.
He left soon afterwards, to forge a lasting bond with Viktor Yushchenko, then prime minister and later president. They became godfathers to each other’s children and – in US diplomatic cables subsequently leaked – he continued to be described as one of Yushchenko’s closest allies through his presidency, which ended in 2010. When Yushchenko stood for the presidency in 2004, Poroshenko was seen as the likely prime minister. But the dynamics of the Orange Revolution changed calculations.
Yushchenko made Yulia Tymoshenko premier and Poroshenko head of the national security council. Poroshenko proposed reforms of the military and police, drew up a peace plan for Transdnistria and called for an inter-state committee, chaired by the presidents, to unknot Russia’s and Ukraine’s problems. But relations with Tymoshenko were fraught, and Yushchenko’s preference for Poroshenko led to a period where, it was alleged, ‘parallel governments’ operated.
1965: Born in Bolhrad, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic 1982-89:
Studies economics in international relations faculty, Kiev State University 1989-92:
Assistant, international economic relations department, Kiev State University 1992-:
Builds up the UkrPromInvest business empire, across the confectionery, food processing, transport engineering, and media industries
1998: Enters Verkhovna Rada, for the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united)
2000: Founds Solidarity party, one of five parties that then merged with the Party of Regions
2002-12: Member of Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc
2003: Offered post of deputy prime minister by President Leonid Kuchma 2004-05: Leading figure in the Orange Revolution
2005: Secretary, National Security and Defence Council
2007-09: Head of the supervisory board, National Bank of Ukraine
2009-10: Foreign minister, in government of Yulia Tymoshenko
2012: Minister of trade and economic development, in government of Viktor Yanukovych
2013: Deputy chairman, European integration committee, Verkhovna Rada
2013-14: Leading supporter of the Euromaidan protests
2014-: President of Ukraine
It was, though, a former Yushchenko aide who triggered Poroshenko’s fall, accusing him of corruption. He denied the claims, but resigned. No charges followed. Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko’s government. Horse-trading began. A caretaker backed by Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in 2004, emerged as prime minister, then Yanukovych himself.
The Orange Revolution seemed buried. So did Poroshenko: his ratings were rock-bottom. He remained a major player, but mainly behind the scenes; positions such as speaker of parliament or mayor of Kiev eluded him.
What one observer describes as his “soft power” – an ability to work with people – helped keep him in the game. A family man and staunchly observant Orthodox Christian, he can drive staff hard but make them feel close colleagues, sometimes through private acts of kindness. Yushchenko made him chairman of the national bank’s supervisory board, but it was Tymoshenko’s blessing that ushered him into his first ministerial post, as foreign minister. At speed, he settled border disputes with Moldova and with Belarus. Above all, though, he drove Yushchenko’s principal stated goal – an association agreement with the EU – and persuaded Yushchenko’s successor, Yanukovych, to make Brussels his first foreign destination.
Two years later, he pushed the EU agenda for nine months as Yanukovych’s economics and trade minister. “Sometimes, [political] forces need to unite to improve the country’s situation,” he said, explaining the link-up with the target of the revolutions of 2004-05 and 2013-14. He has paid a political price for those months in the now disgraced and exiled Yanukovych’s cabinet – he is frequently depicted as too flexible – but no one doubts his pro-EU stance. For years, leaders of the EU’s institutions contacted him regularly, including during the Euromaidan protests. During those three months, he made powerful speeches but avoided the limelight. Perhaps the Orange Revolution’s failure cast a shadow.
Being on the sidelines may have eased his move to centre-stage, as president. But, while his victory was overwhelming, he still looks politically vulnerable. He lacks a party base; and insecurity and economic problems could quickly sap his popularity. He is also under intense financial pressure, as Russia has seized some of his assets in Russia and Crimea.
Poroshenko’s response has been to take risks: he is selling his business empire, and is championing Ukraine’s “European choice”. But, as he told European Voice in spring 2013, “in slogans, everyone is agreed; in steps, everyone has difficulties”. He himself will not walk the purists’ road to Europe – he says he will retain ownership of the television station Channel Five. For Poroshenko, the more urgent decision he faces is how to grapple with another lover of judo, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
and the outcome?
was war on eastern edge of Europe