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Could 'Chocolate King' Petro Poroshenko Bring Stability to Ukraine?

Image: Petro Poroshenko

Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko at a rally this week in Uman, Ukraine. AP

The Willy Wonka of Ukraine may be the best hope to end the crisis there.

Petro Poroshenko, a political survivor and pragmatist who made a fortune selling chocolate, is expected to cruise toward victory Sunday in the first presidential election in Ukraine since the country was gripped by upheaval, and then the forces of Russia.

Most everyone expects some interference from pro-Russian separatists who are fighting Ukrainian security forces in the east. The militants have smashed ballot boxes, threatened election staff and intimidated whole polling places into closing altogether.

But if voters show up in large numbers anyway, Ukraine analysts say, Poroshenko has a real chance at turning things around.

“He’s always been a sober man of the middle,” said John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. “He is the sole established politician who is perceived by Ukrainians as playing a responsible role in the crisis.”

The race

Opinion polls in Ukraine show that no candidate can touch Poroshenko. Even if he fails to meet a 50 percent threshold, the same polls show that he would win a runoff election three weeks later.

His closest competition is probably Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, but analysts say that it would take a miracle for her to win. She is polling at 6 percent.

Poroshenko, 48, is estimated to be worth $1.6 billion. Critically, he made it building a company that has put chocolate and candy stores all over the country — not, as some other oligarchs did, feasting on state subsidies to industry.

He told supporters this week that he needs to win in the first round.

“A victory on May 25 will be our common victory,” he said at a rally south of Kiev, the capital. “This means, on May 26, there will be a commander-in-chief, success in the operation in the east, an end to chaos.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin told CNBC on Friday that Russia would respect the outcome of the election.

But the separatists will have their say, and the election will depend in part on the bravery of eastern Ukrainian voters. On Friday alone, hundreds of insurgents attacked government troops, leaving 20 insurgents dead.

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Playing both sides

Poroshenko, 48, is soft-spoken and perceived in Ukraine as competent and levelheaded, the analysts say.

He aligned himself early this year with the demonstrators at Maidan Square in Kiev, who want Ukraine to develop closer ties with the West. But he also served in the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

He supports stronger ties with Europe but wants to heal the rift with Russia.

“We must build a relationship with our neighbor,” he said this week — quickly stressing that Ukrainian security must come first, and that a healthy relationship with Russia depends on a strong Ukraine.

He promises to decentralize power and give the country’s regions greater power to manage their own money and other matters, which could help build support in the troubled east.

“Poroshenko is by nature a centrist,” said Herbst, the former ambassador. “There are no radical departures with him. He will not be perceived as an alien imposition on the east. That’s a good thing.”

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Dealing with Russia

Herbst said Poroshenko would have two paths to solve the Russia problem.

One would be to make a deal with Putin, but that would probably require Ukraine to surrender its aspirations for closer economic ties with Europe. Another would be to strengthen the police and security forces and quell the rebellion in the east.

That would leave the Kremlin with two choices — up the ante by sending troops into Ukraine, inviting much harsher sanctions from the West, or cool it and deal with the new government.

In other words, which matters more: a functioning economy or another piece of Ukraine?

“At some point Russia is going to have to deal with Ukraine,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director for the Kennan Institute, a Russia-focused group at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy organization.

“Better that it be a stable Ukraine as opposed to a Ukraine that’s in the midst of civil war,” he said.

After the election

Of course, Poroshenko’s success depends in part on a smooth election Sunday. If the separatists succeed in severely depressing the vote in the east, it would play to Putin’s suggestion that Ukraine is deeply unstable.

And the new president will have a host of problems at home, including the economic meltdown and a Parliament that is sharply divided and rife with reports of corruption.

No walk through the candy store for the man called the Chocolate King.

“He’s a brave man for taking it on. That’s for sure,” Pomeranz said. “This would be a remarkable transformation.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.